What Does Fiction Know?

In the tradition of summer reading, we present a series of short stories (and one essay) in which place is central to mood, meaning, and narrative.

Berlin photo by Frank Schirrmeister
[Photo by Frank Schirrmeister]

“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. … Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?”
— E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

In Berlin, pretty Berlin, in the spring time,
You are never not wondering how
It happened …
— Robert Hass, “Bush’s War”

If I knew, even roughly, how Berlin died, I would lay out the facts in a chain of evidence. And if I had a theory, however tenuous, about the city’s post-mortem life, I would argue it straight up: major premise, minor premise, conclusion. As it is, even the rough arc of exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement feels a bit shaky at best. But I can tell you how it feels, in July, on a sunny day late in the month, at the end of my twelve-week stay in the world’s strangest city.

I’m in Berlin for one reason: to explore how fact and fiction might profitably be collided together. I’ve been in town since early spring, teaching a seminar on that topic at the Freie Universität, with two dozen students from all over Germany who were born knowing more about the topic than I can ever presume to teach them.

The course is an experiment, probably not a great thing to try while a guest in a foreign country. But I’ve always wanted to explore, in a classroom, how factual argument and fictive projection, set side by side, might triangulate into places that neither can reach alone. Shaw may be right that “The sign of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.” But natural selection has shaped us to be moved mainly by things on our own private scale. Discursive argument models and projects, producing tremendous leverage, but without a hook that hits us where we live, facts rarely compel us to change our lives. Narrative imagination can twist our guts and shatter our souls, but it’s mired in local fates that must be small enough to look familiar.

Suppose, though, that you yoked the two together. Thought and feeling, argument and stories, statistical analysis and good old twists of the viscera: these two inimical modes, played off of one another, might produce a kind of deep parallax, tricking the mind’s eye into turning those two skewed planes into the illusion of three dimensions. I’ve come to Berlin to test the idea in a live clinical trial.

In class, we’ve read many strange and unclassifiable things, works that hover somewhere between factual knowledge about the world and fictional embodiment of the world’s would-be knowers. We’ve read Julian Barnes’s idiosyncratic but entirely reliable biography of Flaubert, told by a wholly unreliable fictional biographer. As Barnes’s invented mouthpiece meditates on either Emma Bovary or his own shadowy wife: “Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this.”

We’ve read Paul Broks’s chimerical excursion, Into the Silent Land, with its collage of neuroscience, clinical case histories, memoir, philosophical essay, and bare naked short story. Broks’s essays prove that there is no Self, no master narrative holding us together; but his fictive personal memoir can’t escape having one. The brain is condemned to think that it’s a soul, and to describe that impossible hybrid state, Broks says:

One has to be bilingual, switching from the language of neuroscience to the language of experience; from talk of “brain systems” and “pathology” to talk of “hope,” “dread,” “pain,” “joy,” “love,” “loss,” and all the other animals, fierce and tame, in the zoo of human consciousness.

My students have swallowed every bastard hybrid genre I’ve thrown at them. Fictocriticism, mockumentary, staged reality, Borgesian simulated lectures, psycho-journalism, unattributed sampling, hip-hop mashup, real actors playing imaginary authors making pixelated media appearances while selling brutally frank memoirs filled with the slightly altered real-life experiences of some other, dissembling author. My sales pitch has worked so well with this group that, by the end of the semester, I’m appalled at what I’ve unleashed. James Frey, J. T. LeRoy, lonelygirl15, COPS and Survivor and America’s Next Top Model: bring it all on, my German students say. The blurrier the better. They have grown up in a world that laughs at the very distinctions that I’ve come here to challenge, and in class, they regard me with affectionate pity for my quaint belief in the existence of boundaries that a writer might still hope to exploit by transgressing.

The brightest among them sets me straight on the matter: who cares whether you call a thing memoir or fantasy? Relax, Richard. Everything is narrative. The King is dead and it doesn’t really matter what killed the Queen. Anything that life can throw at you gets better if you read it as a pomo novel.

And this spring, Berlin — increasingly pretty Berlin — seems to have reached a similar accommodation. The whole sprawling centerless city has fallen in love with play-acting itself again. Berlin, 2009, seems intent on becoming the based-on-a-true-story version of its all-too-factual past. The week I came to town, The Producers opened in the Admiralspalast: “Springtime for Hitler,” in the theater where the Führer himself once kept a private box. Long red banners dangle down the neoclassical Friedrichstrasse façade, the black swastikas against their white circles now twisted into pretzels. Just down the street, the subterranean bunkers of high-ranking Nazis do a brisk business as hip, all-night clubs.

A mile southwest, in Potsdamer Platz, a dotted line two bricks wide bearing the nametag “Berliner Mauer, 1961-1989” runs up to and underneath a suite of Blade Runner-like fantasy buildings designed by the world’s most prestigious architects. Alongside the grandiose pleasure-tent of Helmut Jahn’s Sony Center where it springs up out of the former Death Strip, 20 years after the Wall came down, authentically costumed border guards posted in front of a few carefully preserved graffiti-covered slabs will stamp your passport with a bona fide Eastern Zone permit, while your friends snap the confirming digital pics.

Young artists from many countries, drawn by the plummeting rents of the overbuilt city, now occupy Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg, the once-desperate working-class neighborhoods of the East. Soon they themselves will be evicted by more serious gentrifiers searching for ever-more authentic, outdated charm. Meanwhile, over on Museum Island, work has already begun on rebuilding the Stadtschloss, the old Kaisers’ palace, damaged in the war and pulled down in 1950 by the East Germans, to be replaced with the Palast der Republik, a 1970s Socialist modernist monster, itself torn down after reunification at staggering expense. The billion-dollar replacement is to be a stone-for-stone façade replica of a building that was itself a hulking, Imperial, fake-Italianate, mélange glorifying the Kaiser’s late entry into empire. Here and there around the building site, vendors sell mass-produced Ostalgie souvenirs — Red Army uniforms, Stasi caps, and DDR license tags.

Underfoot all over town, in every neighborhood, the sidewalks sprout scores of Stolpersteine, stumbling blocks: four-inch square bronze remembrance plaques, the work of artist Gunter Demnig in what is becoming one of the largest artworks of all time. Twenty thousand bronze cobblestones, and counting, spread across four countries, and each one marks a life, once real, now only imagined. The one by the steps in front of my apartment reads:

Here Lived
Flora Berger
Born Meyer
Deported 14.9.1942
Murdered 18.10.1942

This, in the capital of a country whose thinly disguised Neo-Nazi party has recently been seated in two different regional parliaments.

I’ve lived in this city for three months, and by now, like every Berlin resident of any duration, defeated by the question Why?, I’ve long since settled into the far more modest and immediate question, And then? A day does not go by in this place when the unspeakable doesn’t insinuate itself into the most casual restaurant or bakery or drugstore transaction. Europe died; explanations died of grief. Not much of a plot, but there is no other.

For a quarter of a year now, I’ve written nothing but class lectures. For the first time since my initial bout with fiction over 25 years ago — a fable about a very real German photograph taken on the eve of the First World War, that prelude to all the following unknowable psychosis — for the first time since I committed myself to the novel, fiction has begun to feel at worst indecent and at best vaguely irrelevant — a Hail Mary plea from the middle of reality’s cross-hairs. It’s Berlin’s fault, I guess: not just the inconceivable past but the ridiculously buoyant present. What chance does personal fiction have against public facts the size of this place? After such reality, the pretense of imagined narrative — standard characters, dramatic scenes, all the hackneyed conventions of direct speech — increasingly feels, in the words of Dave Eggers, like driving around in a clown suit. I’ve given my students David Shields’s Reality Hunger in galleys: “Story seems to say everything happens for a reason, and I want to say No, it doesn’t.” They’ve taken the refrain to their hearts, a rejection of that fervent myth and Romanticism that brought the world down with it.

We’ve never talked history in the seminar, German history. What’s the point? I’m an Ausländer, free to dabble in a past they’ve long since been broken by. They are sick of the unending legacy, and never out from underneath the deadening self-consciousness — post-war, post-Wall, post-will. Yet still, we are never not wondering what the past died of. There are facts that no fiction can hope to blur.

It’s now late July, and the semester is over. My wife Jane and I have taken the U2 subway over from Wilmersdorf to see the German Technical Museum. We’ve saved the place for our last day in the city; neither of us really have the heart for it. We’ve made it through the Liebeskind Jewish Museum, with its tilted, frenzying Garden of Exile and its towering Void cutting a negative swath through the middle of the building. We survived the Holocaust Memorial, the 2,711 granite slabs near the Brandenburg Gate that have become a favorite hide-and-seek playground for kids from dozens of countries, each stone covered in Protectosil, an anti-graffiti coating manufactured by the same company involved in producing Zyklon B for the gas chambers. But we’re cowards when it comes to the story of German machinery.

And sure enough, the hive of cavernous, converted industrial buildings and railyard sheds overwhelms us as soon as we enter. Even I, who have enjoyed a near-Asperger’s if high-humanistically functioning engineer’s temperament my whole life, am quickly shredded by the massive celebration of craft, joy, mastery, and combustion. It’s free day at the museum, and the place is filled with children — school groups and families, kids piloting simulated steamships, operating dynamos, and flying virtual birdman outfits through digital cityscapes. Berlin is a great place to be a kid; Germany has always made a cult of childhood.

The exhibits are rapturous. Implements, instruments, and engines proliferate through every cranny of the place. The museum is not a monument to military manufacturing, per se. But a quick stroll through the caravels, zeppelins, and Krupp radreifen leaves us seeing something so tired and self-evident that I’m almost embarrassed to make it the hinge of my gathering syllogism: Civilization, it turns out, is mostly about throw weight. Nothing else in us can match the gleeful, endlessly inspired energy of creative destruction. Death-making is our major art, the thing we do most ingeniously in every era. The papermaking and felt-hat exhibits are tucked away back in the museum’s hidden recesses.

Maybe I have been primed for this response, staying up late the night before, reading Robert Hass’s great poem, “Bush’s War”:

Someone will always want to mobilize
Death on a massive scale for economic
Domination or revenge. And the task, taken
As a task, appeals to the imagination.

Hass wrote the poem in Berlin, pretty Berlin, just a couple of years before, while in the same visiting position at the Freie Universität that I have just completed. Since then, Bush’s war has become Obama’s, the surge has migrated to Afghanistan, the term “fifth generation jet fighter” has entered the lexicon, the Pentagon has delved deeply into Augmented Cognition and Neurotech, and I am never not wondering how it all could have happened.

Jane and I are in the aerospace hall, swept along from the 18th-century balloon fantasies to the Berlin Airlift, when I see it: the Rheintochter. I recognize it even before reading the tag. It’s a surface-to-air missile, one of the offspring of the V2, tested successfully but cancelled at the very end of the war in a power struggle between Göring, Speer, and Himmler. The romance of the name stops me: Wagner’s Rhine Maidens, guarding the gold that holds the secret to world dominion. The level of technology is stunning, years beyond the Allies’ similar efforts. But it’s the rocket’s gesamtkunstwerk — the total artwork of it — that does me in.

The thing is made of dark wood and bright chrome, shaped and polished like some loving piece of Amish furniture, as carefully crafted as anything out of the Museum of Decorative Arts: a lovely sculpture with a hint of Jugendstil. And it stands as just the simplest precursor to our infinitely more Wagnerian productions, those armed, unmanned drones right now winging through the Swat and Korengal valleys, the Predators and Reapers, controlled by satellite and coordinated by pilots at terminals on the far side of the planet. I stare at the Rhine daughter, seeing all the things she will yet grow up to become. Even a novelist can see that much; it does not take rocket science.

I feel like I’m having an asthma attack in a sealed coffin. Every guardedly optimistic, would-be redemptive human story I’ve ever shepherded into print has missed the point. We are built for this plot, shaped by evolution for it, and our steadily expanding mastery of the materials will not stop short of a magnum opus. No other craft that we put our hands to can hope to keep pace. By the time my wife and I find the exit through the labyrinth of machines, I want to burn every novel I’ve ever written.

We walk back to the Gleisdreieck U-Bahn stop in silence. All along the route, I hear my students lecture me. You wanted to play fiction again fact? Didn’t you know fiction is already fact’s patsy? My naiveté dies; then, the novel I haven’t been working on these last three months dies along with. I know exactly Why. Worse: I have a pretty good idea of And then.

We are halfway up the steps of the Gleisdreieck platform when I hear a tune that I know like breathing. It’s Bach’s A-minor fugue for organ, BWV 543, twisting in the air. But before you get too anxious about where this is going, let me add that the lines of monumental fugue pouring down the refuse-strewn steps are coming from an accordion. And Jane and I know the performer. We’ve been hearing this guy for the last three months. He’s been following us around town like a musical stalker, little snippets as the U-bahn doors open briefly at stations up and down the U9 and U2, chords swelling from the far side of impenetrable crowds mobbing the platforms at Zoo or Alexanderplatz. He’s the phantom of the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe, and the songs from his subway squeeze box form a ludicrous soundtrack to this city, this time of year, this late in history: pretty, archaic tunes familiar from countless films, melodies that might coax harried commuters to cough up half a euro. The first movement of Vivaldi’s “Winter,” or the famous Adagio, purportedly a fragment by Albinoni found in the ruins of fire-bombed Dresden, but in fact a 1958 creation of the post-war musicologist Remo Giazotto, who tried to take his act of loving forgery with him to the grave.

I look at Jane, and she gives me the same look back: We got ’im, finally, and on our last day in town. We shoot up the steps two at a time. The sealed doom of the technical museum opens onto something like a terraced garden. It won’t be our capacity for despair that does the race in; we are damned by how easily we shrug the darkness off.

He’s up there, in the passage by the ticket machines, seated on a little stool, his back against the oily tiles like he’s some kind of indigent addict. Everything about him shocks me. First of all, he looks about fifteen. He’s a blond, crew-cut, scrofulous, anemic, and slightly lankier E.T. His instrument is an old Russian chromatic-button bayan, a massive thing that must be half his weight. The waterfall of sound issuing from the intricate machine is better than good. It’s pure architecture, big enough to fill this train station with the hint of more livable worlds. The chords form a map of forgotten possibilities, and the long, braided fugue subject unfolds as painfully as any sound you might pick to accompany this scarred place.

He heads into the home stretch, that phantasmagoric cadenza. As his arm extends, cuffing the drooping bellows like it’s a willful pet terrier trying to break free, all I can think about is putting him in a story.

Maybe you’ve heard about how Joshua Bell, one of the greatest living violinists, went down into L’Enfant Plaza station on the Washington D.C. Metro, pretending to be a street musician playing to a stressed-out, rush-hour crowd who were busy playing themselves. Bell performed the D minor Chaconne — the peak of the unaccompanied violin repertoire and a monument to human culture. Half a dozen people out of thousands stopped to listen — a handful of commuters struggling to grasp Orpheus in the Underworld — and Bell made 32 bucks in 43 minutes. Bell’s concert was a beautiful, staged newspaper stunt that makes you weep for the deafness of all mankind.

This subway accordion recital, on the other hand, sounds… like a real-life recreation of that play-acted hoax. But this Russian busker will never have any stage grander than the bowels of Central European mass transit systems. The guy plays the accordion, for God’s sake. He’s looking at subway stations and wedding receptions for the rest of his life. It doesn’t matter in the slightest if it sounds, down in those resonant tunnels, fuller than the organ in the Berliner Dom.

My brain seizes on a line from Broks, the story-telling neuropsychologist that my German students struggled with: “Great music cancels the distinction between the external world and our inner life.” And nothing in evolutionary biology can explain why it does this to us. “Experience is a first-person business,” Broks says. “Science operates in the third person.” Music is — what? A surprise counterpoint between the two. I’m sorry, but in Berlin, pretty Berlin, in the spring, as we stand there listening to the Russian busker play Bach, when nothing in me is strong enough to survive the annihilating past, this music makes me want to know what happens next.

A train from Ruhleben thunders in to the platform and disgorges its content. People walk past this one-man band at varying speeds, each making complex real-time cost-benefit analyses, calculating the trade-offs between net present enjoyment and future arrival. The accordionist lays into the bass of Bach’s tremendous final pedal point, herding the profusion back towards tonic. My wife and I stand transfixed. For as long as it takes this man to reach the final cadence, we are here, anyhow, going nowhere, present to the endless unlikelihood of existing at all.

When he finishes, we climb to where he sits. I mumble a bravo, and ask him where he’s from. His Russian-inflected German is as halting as my vaguely German-inflected Dutch. He has two CDs for sale, handmade collections showing him Photoshopped in front of Cologne Cathedral and a gothic castle I can’t recognize. His name is spelled differently on each disc — the curse and the blessing of Cyrillic transcription. His surname and family name switch order at random. But the name, in any guise, is Jewish.

We talk a little; I’m able to dope out most of what he says, despite the game of double-babble. He’s 25. He’s only been in the city a year, himself. He’s from St. Petersburg, where he studied performance. And now he’s become — I’m not sure I’ve gotten this last bit right — one of the quarter million Jews since the collapse of the Soviet Union who have relocated to Germany.

I’m — I can’t say exactly what I am. Somewhere between horrified and bewildered. For three months, from the New Synagogue in Scheunenviertel to the cemeteries of Prenzlauer Berg and Weißensee, we’ve walked past the 24-hour police squads that stand sentry over every Jewish institution in the city — permanent armed guard against a past that threatens to return and raze the present at any moment. We have seen the traces of things launched from this city, actions that make the most brutal act of God look benign. I have exactly two questions I can ask this man. I can’t very well ask him, And then? I settle for Why? Why Bach, after all that has happened? Why Berlin, of all places on earth?

Jane and I stand there, waiting on the accordionist’s answer as if this single person’s account will decide, once and forever, where in the world Europe will land. I don’t know why we humans are forever confusing a stranger’s c.v. with statistical proof, or seeing some invented character’s choice as the world’s tie-breaking vote. It’s some fluke in the way we’re wired: only the personal story is real. But personally speaking, I’d say that the trait is the strangest, saddest, scariest, and most exploitable fact about us.

So there is your exposition and rising action: semi-unreliable narrator has existential crisis in technological museum, then hears a busker in the subway. Odds are, you are right now scrambling to turn the story into plot. You want from me what I want from the guy with the accordion. You’re wrestling with the closure impulse, the Kuleshov effect — our inevitable tendency to read two unlinked images into an emotionally coherent causal sequence. Or maybe you’re hoping that if you keep still and wait, the plot will blast by harmlessly and only graze you. You’re nervous that no finale here can be both real and revealing.

Well, be nervous. Nervousness has at least as much survival value as narrative. I’m nervous because a real narrator is supposed to tell his story in the first few minutes, then move on quickly to the actual work of argument. But here I am, recidivist story teller, just now getting the exposition out of the way, and it’s already time for the denouement. And I don’t even have the handy dodge of hiding behind some well-rounded character’s sudden epiphany.

Lucky for me, “denouement” is like “inflammable”: one of those words that actually means the opposite of what it seems. I don’t have to bring it all home. All I have to do is untie.

We stand there on the platform of the U2 waiting for the accordionist’s answer: this year’s final verdict on Berlin. Of course, in point of fact, nothing he could possibly tell me would mean much, in the scale of real things. What I need is empirical evidence, stripped of narrative arc — a carefully researched, exhaustive account of the death and rebirth of Berlin. But all I really want is to scratch, for a moment, the itch of the personal plot.

So I’ll tell you exactly what the accordionist said, even though scratching only ever makes these things worse. But first I have to tell you something else. We actually heard the fugue before we went to the museum. Bach first, Rheintochter second. Forgive that small fiction. I’ll never be free of the reordering narrator, however much I hide or refute or try to kill him.

I’m sorry for the lie, and I’m not even sure how useful that lie might be. But it seems to me that fact alone will never know how badly we need to shape it. In my defense, the musician did look exactly as I described, and I have the blurry Photoshopped cover art of his CDs, complete with transposable name, to prove it. We did go up to him, when he finished playing. I did mumble the bravo. But all I really asked then was, “Wieviel kosten Ihre Aufnahmen?” How much for your recording?

The only thing he told me, in fact, was: ten euros each.

But what he told me, in fiction, is all true: Germany does have the fastest-growing Jewish population in Europe. Berlin’s Jewish population has doubled, since the fall of the wall. You might draw an argument from that; I won’t. Fiction argues only this: facts mean nothing outside of our shared hope and dread. The point of any story is to show how cobbled up, desperate, and provisional all stories really are. This city will forever be up for grabs.

I give him a 20 and pick a disc. He’s been playing all morning, and still can’t make change. “Beide?” he suggests. I buy them both.

Not much of a plot, but it’s mine, and I’m sticking to it. Somebody thinks Berlin should long ago have died of grief. Somebody else thinks that even an accordionist might make a living here.

About the Series: Fiction and Place

In a departure from our usual focus on in-depth analysis and critique, we present a series on Fiction and Place. Contributors include some of the very best contemporary writers of fiction; the settings range from the farm fields of California to a small town in the Deep South to the streets of Berlin.

Richard Powers, “What Does Fiction Know?,” Places Journal, August 2011. Accessed 01 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/110802

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Past Discussions View
  • Hayden White

    08.17.2011 at 18:56

    "You might draw an argument from that; I won’t. Fiction argues only this: facts mean nothing outside of our shared hope and dread. The point of any story is to show how cobbled up, desperate, and provisional all stories really are." This must hold true for "historical" stories as well as "fictional" ones, no? And if so, what IS your problem, Mr. Powers?

  • Gs

    08.19.2011 at 20:40

    Beautifully thoughtful essay.

    I'd never imagined shadow boxing could land real blows.

  • Nate

    08.25.2011 at 10:39

    As someone who has been living in Berlin for over 5 years, I find this article to be pretentious with a capital P.

    And in that sense, I find it to be a perfect representation of what Berlin has slowly been turning into.