Venerating the verisimilar and the unreal

How impossible is literature if reality itself isn't limited to a single perspective?

Image By: By Dylan Moriarty

If it isn’t already a given, the things that happen in novels don’t happen in our lives—at least, not in the same way they do in novels.

The question of how much fiction should concern itself with reality is an old one, old enough that its reckonable beginnings are lost. In my idealized scenario, the first humans who sorted out a concept of language realized—simultaneously with the idea that language could be used to describe the reality around them—that language could be used to not describe reality, or a reality that isn’t our reality. An unreality.

And fiction is littered with such unrealities. Orwell’s unreal despot pigs. Fitzgerald’s magnificently unreal Gatsby. Chaucer’s unreal pilgrims. The unreal Hamlet. The unreal day of June 16 1904. Pynchon’s unreal octopus. The brief and wondrously unreal life of Oscar Wao. Unreal martians. Unreal vampires.

Much as I like all this talk of “unreal” and “unreality,” there is another word I’m searching for: verisimilitude. Ver-i-si-mil-i-tude. It’s like a dense, flavorful gum, isn’t it?

I come to that word because it refers to the veracity—in a more mundane sense, the plausibility—of fiction.

Another way of saying that, without saying the whole thing, is “suspension of disbelief.” You’ve heard it before discussing fiction, especially in fictions where verisimilitude is stretched to the point of quantum jiggling. Science fiction, ghost stories, convoluted mystery thrillers, postmodernity. But whereas “suspension of disbelief” involves ignoring the unreal elements of a story, verisimilitude addresses the unreality that itself is so integral to fiction writing/reading.

What makes a work verisimilar? If you’re boring, it means what happens in a piece of fiction can happen in real life. That fiction is life, circumspectly observed with no frills or flights of fancy. Empirical ennui.

That approach only holds up if you believe reality is communal and inviolate. That reality is necessarily imbued with unequivocal truth, and that fiction, while functioning as an unreality, strives to be reality or at least mimic it thoroughly. But after 20 years on this planet, I’ve come to the conclusion none of that is true. At the very least, I don’t believe in a reality that’s shared by everyone unequivocally.

Hence the fascination with verisimilitude. Because if the truth of reality is more malleable than it seems, how pliant is the unreality (itself the pockmarked aggregate of an infinite number of the unrealities that occupy books) of fiction?

There is a great moment in “Humboldt’s Gift” by Saul Bellow where he tests the notion of verisimilitude. The main character, Charlie Citirine, is forced to ascend into the steel skeleton of an in-progress Chicagoan skyscraper. His tormentor, wannabe mob boss Rinaldo Cantabile, follows him up with nine $50 bills. The money was Charlie’s. And standing in this metal hollow, Cantabile proceeds to take seven of those bills and fold them into paper airplanes, gliding them down into the gusts of the Windy City.

Then, with two of Charlie’s bills in hand, Cantabile leads Citrine back down to ground level and buys them a steak dinner.

Would that, could that have actually happened? I mean, damn, it’s too cool a moment for its veracity to be questioned.

In my mind, Bellow didn’t break the verisimilar veneer of his book because the moment made sense in context. And of all the things that happen in that book, that moment is actually one of the less weird.

That’s all verisimilitude is: the measure of what can and can’t happen in a book, and its almost accidental correlation to “real” life. The substance of its characters, the legitimacy of its plot or story, its rules, its buffers and its limitations.

If Rinaldo Cantabile can climb into an incomplete skyscraper and make paper airplanes out of someone else’s money, it’s because he lives in a world that lets him. It’s surmised he can still fall to his death, and that his death would be registered within Chicago’s city limits, so reality is not overly stretched. But it’s played with. If anything, the fact Cantabile did that affirms verisimilitude.

So what parting words can be said about verisimilitude? That reality can be unreal and that unreality can be real. It’s a tired old chiasmus.

Are you living in the real world? Not sure? Ask Sean at sreichard@wisc.edu and see if he knows (he probably doesn’t).

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