A Serial Novel

A literary experiment in judicial philosophy and historical fiction, inter alia.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Chapter One: Rumors Swirl in Paris

When the official confirmation of the death of Justice, Marquis de Orleans, finally made its way to Paris, it was too late to quell the rumors that he had actually escaped death once again. Still, the basic features of the story seemed to confirm what rumor had been saying for months: that, rather than returning to Paris after somehow eluding the minders whom the King had appointed to make his “retirement” to island life comfortable, he had gone onto the mainland of the New World; that, while there, he was betrayed by a man of God; and that he died proclaiming his continued loyalty to the regime to-come.
But the official news did not resolve certain basic questions: how he had gotten off the island at all, who this man of God was (there were many obvious candidates); and, more importantly, why Just had not immediately returned to Paris, where his return would have been greeted with joy. Indeed, people grumbled, it could very well have forced the King to capitulate to many of Just’s demands, if it did not simply lead to outright revolution. Some insisted that he had gone in search of the Fountain of Youth, to bring word of it back to Paris, to give lie to the myth that there was not enough for all. Others said that he had gone in search of a new homeland for his followers. (Rumor tends to be optimistic: but many cynics who heard these fantastical claims shook their head and noted that he too had forsaken the people of France). Given all these inconsistencies and unresolved questions and, given the superhuman powers that many of the people ascribed to the Marquis, more than a few people refused to believe, absent a corpse, that he had really died.
Still, absent a corpse, his friends mourned his death. He was, of course mourned most visibly and vocally by Heloise Beaujeu and Abelard Sarrasine. Whatever tears they shed in private, in public they predictably insisted that the only proper way to mourn the Marquis was to continue to further the cause of the regime to-come. Still, others found other ways to mourn his loss. For example, the day after learning of his death, Juliette Fulbert acquiesced to her uncle, the most respected Cure Fulbert, agreeing to answer the call of God and join a convent, as he had long urged. But once she was safely wrapped in the walls of the convent, she shirked her work, and refused to leave her cell. The sisters, who had known her since she was a child went to console her. But she needed no consoling. She did not weep, nor was she unkind to the sisters. She listened to their entreaties and questions sympathetically, and, in her private language, communicated her contentment. Even if she could have spoken, what more could she have said? What could she have said that would erase her debt to the uncle who had always been like a father to her? And what words could she really have spoken that would have reconciled the Cure to the Marquis?


Blogger Phoebe said...


I’ve been trying to think about how to jumpstart this urge to write which has lately abandoned me. And it occurs to me that you’ve been going through the same. So I have an idea. I don’t know if it will produce anything interesting or (God forbid) good. But at least it might be fun.
But first, a brief diversion into the philosophy of law.
Ronald Dworkin was faced with a serious problem. Courtesy of our esteemed president, the most august body of the United States Senate, and those dispassionate pursuers of truth that we call the twenty-four hour news networks, over the last few years, you and I have learned that a judge is a politician who wears robes instead of a suit. But, long before CNN, Dworkin (who is a little better read than you and I on such matters) had already heard tell of this from a group of scholars called legal realists. With the characteristic self-assuredness that marks all self-proclaimed realists, they had cleverly informed us that all judges, even Supreme Court justices, made decisions based on their own prejudices and factual beliefs. They then simply used the rules of the law (which were underdetermined anyway) to dress up their opinions and make them all look uniform (which is why they all wear robes). And one of them went on to become a Supreme Court Justice, so if he, if anyone, should know what the law looked like beneath those robes.
Ronald Dworkin was faced with a serious problem because he didn’t believe that the law was underdetermined, and didn’t want to believe that most justices did either. So what were they doing when they issued opinions? Well, someone has to! Of course, the laws can’t interpret themselves, but a good judge makes up for this by effacing her own subjectivity. Judges are engaged in the activity of being one author! (The robes actually showed the truth).
In order to think about how they do this, Dworkin proposed the idea of a serial novel. Say Dickens had left A Christmas Carol unfinished (I know, it’s so embarrassing that he chose such a silly novel! Oh well, maybe the law has silly origins also). A judge is like someone who wants to write the end of the novel, but wants to write it in a faithful way. So, she asks herself the question: what ways of writing the ending would have a good fit? And, of all ways that have good fit, which is the best? It’s here, and only here, that she can let her subjectivity enter back into the picture. Along the way, the judge is doing two things: 1) she is interpreting the story up to that point, but 2) she is writing new parts also. So say you want to decide if Scrooge is going to be redeemed. (I know, such an uninteresting question!). Well, you first ask which answer “fits” with what’s come before. Say you decide that either answer works: then you can end with the answer you like the best. But if they both don’t fit, you are constrained. So, as much as I’d like Scrooge to wake up unrepentant, go over to Tiny Tim’s house and break the little bastard’s one good leg, that ending probably wouldn’t have a very good fit, since Dickens has already beaten us over the head with Scrooge’s impending reform. This interplay between fit and goodness, Dworkin dubbed “integrity,” and he thought judges should strive for integrity.
And maybe judges do. But you and I (who are perhaps a little better read than Dworkin in such matters) know that novelists don’t care at all for integrity. So, I’ve often wondered if what Dworkin says really benefits from the analogy to literature. Of course, novelists want integrity in their own work. But do they really want to share their work with another? Would they really by willing to be team-players? I have my doubts.
I propose testing that theory since, as you are no doubt aware, literature proceeds by attempting what it cannot, or does not, do. And we are perhaps in a unique position to do so, since we can perhaps work together without having to sacrifice ourselves. After all, we have always been together. I don’t just mean from the moment we were born. We are either blessed or cursed to agree on so many things: about literature, of course, but also about politics, religion and art (the subject, not you), and what we thought of the Mitchells, or the Wakimuras, or Jack, or Maria, or Mom and Dad (when to fight, when to fold, and when to ditch our stupid nicknames).
And the truth is, lately, I wouldn’t mind effacing my subjectivity.
We’ve talked for a long time now about different stories we’d like to write. So here’s what I propose: we write Dworkin’s serial novel together (Not, of course, A Christmas Carol. I’ve tried to pick an era and a theme that I know matters to us both). And we follow the constraints that Dworkin gave us (why not?). Here’s how I see it working: At least once a week, we take turns “posting” an entry to this blog. The entry will be the story proper (#2 in my description of Dworkin above). In addition, at the same time or prior to doing so, the person who posts the entry also comments on the previous week’s entry. The comment will interpret the previous entry and set up the next entry (#1). At that rate, we could perhaps write a serial novel in a year! Oh, and one other rule (although this doesn’t concern the text proper): no talking about the novel outside of the blog.
Since I am anywhere from three to six minutes older (depending on whether we start the clock at crown or at rump), and since it was my idea, I’ve taken the liberty of making the first post. If you’re interested, just comment on the post, and then write the next entry by this time next week. But outside of that: Shhh! Silence is the word.


12:49 PM  
Blogger Art said...


So here I am at the last minute as usual.

I like your idea (of course).

I like too that you talk about submitting yourself to a uniform author/authority and then go right ahead and write the end of the story, leaving me to follow. (No, I get it; it's ambiguous enough that we'll have to see what fits when we get there again.)

The whole idea has break-up written all over it. I know you've been obsessed with Dworkin forever, and I've been meaning to read him, but this is how I see it:

You in a bar wearing the "Guys hit on us in this T-shirt" that was mine before it shrunk , scoping out the girls and wondering if the cute guy at the end of the bar thinks you're cuter or Retro with the Lashes is cuter. And you're thinking, "If only someone could judge, if only someone could judge. Personally and absolutely."
Dave could tried once and you could have tried to make him, but who's going to judge now? And so loneliness makes absolutists of us all.

Shit, I am obnoxious, I'm sorry. (But you know I love you, chick, and the fuckers really aren't worth it.)

And I like your story. (Ours, I guess I should say.) It smacks of scandal and break up too--all those rumors. I think the Parisians have a pretty good idea about who killed Just. The way they call the killer "the man of God"; seems like some personalized snarkiness to me.

And I see that Juliette is one of our deaf peasants of France. I'd forgotten about them. Does she speak the most scientific of sign languages or the half-pidgeny one the villagers use? (Or are they related? I can't remember. You do.)

I thought I was going to start with that village, which I see around Just's growing-up-in home in the country, but now I think that I'll start with the sound of the fountain.

10:52 PM  

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