Friday Oct. 25, 2002
Croatian-born Novakovich has published numerous works of fiction, including, Yolk and Salvation and Other Disasters. He received the Whiting Writer’s Award (1997), Guggenheim Fellowship (1999), two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1991 and 2002), and a fellowship at The New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers in 2001/02. Novakovich also teaches in the English Department at Penn State University.
Introduction by Victoria N. Alexander
Despite the fact that Novakovich may write about what he knows, immigrant life or life in Croatia, I consider what he writes, “stories” (not fantasy) but not so-called slice of life fiction. I think his stories are concerned with an artfulness in a way that much of contemporary fiction is not. They may remind you myths. I want to make a comparison to one myth in particular, Oedipus Rex, not in terms of content but in terms of plot structure.
It has to do with the way he uses chance and coincidence. It’s something he does in many stories, but I want to focus on one called, “Crimson.” In that story, a man named Milan is forced to join the Serbian army. He takes part in a siege of a Croatian town. Finally, they take the town, and his captain makes him shoot an unarmed man to prove his loyalty to Serbia. He pulls the trigger for reasons that have more to do with lack of courage than anything else. Later that day, Milan sees his captain raping a Croatian woman, whom he mistakes for his first love, Svetlana because of some slight resemblance. He had been recalling her earlier that day, remembering painful unrequited love, and his lack of courage then too.
Now, if it were she, it would be quite a coincidence! As if fate had contrived this chance for Milan to act courageously and to right one of his previous failures.
Milan acts on this misrecognition. He kills the captain. He revives the woman, who, it turns out, is a stranger named Olga. Milan then flees the army.
Then, many weeks later, he happens to meet Olga in another town, by chance, as she is on her way to an abortion clinic. She says she’s pregnant from the rape. Milan convinces her to marry him and they raise the child together. Time passes. Olga finds a photograph of her dead father and shows it to Milan. Milan recognizes her father as the unarmed the man whom his captain had made him kill. Milan confesses to the killing, and then confesses that he had raped her while she was unconscious. The child is actually his.
It can’t be easy to come to terms with what one does in a time of war, especially if your victims do not remain strangers. Novakovich is good at complicating matters.
Now how is this a “story” like Oedipus Rex? It would be complicated to discover that you had killed your future father-in-law or been raped by your future husband. Just as it would be complicated to discover that you had killed your father or married your son.
What are the chances that a random crime will turn out to be extremely meaningful? When Milan discovers that the first and only man he ever killed in war turned out to be his father in law, he says to Olga:
That’s amazing bad luck. How many people lived in Vukovar? Thirty thousand? Two thousand men in their fifties? And to chance upon your father … But not to chance upon anybody would have been even more likely.
Now what is so special about coincidences in narratives? I’m going to discuss three ways of looking at this question. First, Why are they so important in myths? How do they function there? Second, in the age of postmodernism, Why were they used ironically? And Third, Why do coincidences function differently now? In order to answer to this third question, which is of course the one we’re interested in, I will have to introduce some recent science that has revised our notions of chance and determinism. And which, I argue, provide a new context for the interpretation of art. When I’m done I hope you will understand why I chose to have Novakovich read tonight and I hope you will also understand more what Dactyl is all about.
You may wonder how Novakovich could be so far ahead of the game. Novakovich himself may be wondering since he’s not a hard core fan of science so far as I know. I think to be an artist is to be ahead of this game. This game of chance and order and design. The new sciences are closest to the aesthetic form of understanding than any other form of understanding we humans have dreamt up yet, including empirical or religious forms of knowledge etc…