On Backwardness

When Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands was published last year, it met with a bewildering and dismaying response from reviewers. Set in an unnamed but vaguely Middle Eastern country, the novel follows a foreign doctor’s attempts to live with the pseudo-tribal inhabitants of the desert marshes — a people modelled on, but not faithfully representing, the marsh Arabs of Iraq. The lands of these “marshmen” have been occupied by a foreign power within the region and, in response to the occupation, a more distant foreign power offers military and logistical support to the insurgency of the marshmen. The marshmen are thus proxy soldiers in a war between two much larger nation states, and when that war results in the defeat of the original occupying forces, the marshmen launch an insurgency against the second-run occupiers who were once their allies.

In summary form, it’s true, Marshlands might appear to be the sort of novel that seeks to engage with current affairs or, more broadly, with the political upheavals that have plagued the Middle East over the last few decades. In fact, though, Marshlands possesses a number of unconventional qualities which altogether bend the novel towards fabulism at the expense of realism. Among these are the total absence of a specific and recognisable narrative setting, a determination to abstract rather than particularise the conflict and its participants, a detailed but necessarily speculative anthropological commentary on a fictional people, and a light dose of self-referentiality. The novel’s clearest antecedent is arguably J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which employs the aesthetic strategies mentioned above, but it also seems to owe something to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, whose narrator reads significance into the everyday actions of the foreigners he calls “plainsmen” in much the same way that Olshan’s protagonist can watch a marshman simply shrug his shoulders and remark that a shrug by a marshman is “a gesture with infinite subtle inflections.” In any event, although it offers implicit commentary on the follies of imperialism in a general sense, Marshlands is not a novel determined to say something perceptive or insightful about the conditions of the contemporary world.

What’s interesting about the response to Marshlands is the attention given to one of its least interesting features. After the novel sets up its story, according to the blurb on the back, “Marshlands reveals one of its many surprises: it is written in reverse. The novel leaps backward once, twice… unraveling time to reveal the doctor’s ambiguous relationship to the austerely beautiful land and its people.” But don’t think it’s something along the lines of Time’s Arrow, in which time proceeds backwards action by action, sentence by sentence. The story is simply broken into three sections, each of which depicts events that take place after the section that follows. That’s not exactly radical experimentalism, and yet that’s the feature of Marshlands to have attracted the most attention from its reviewers. “[F]or all its shocking revelations,” according to the New York Times, “the story lacks propulsion, its backward narration and withholding of information distracting us from the action and motivation.” “Mr. Olshan’s control over his story-in-reverse is impressive,” the Wall Street Journal protested, but perhaps at the cost of “adept[ness] in his uses of the past.” And even when the novel’s reverse chronology escaped criticism for its supposed shortcomings, there was a tendency to downplay its effects and undersell its success. “Fiction that moves backwards in time,” wrote Benjamin Rybeck at Three Guys One Book, “often milks the structure for irony [and] Marshlands is no exception. The reader moves into the protagonist’s past, holding knowledge of what will become of him, while he blunders onward, oblivious to the future.” That’s true, but is that all there is to it?

Irony is, without doubt, one effect of the reverse chronology of Marshlands. The doctor visiting the marshlands is a citizen of the foreign power that at first supported the insurgency of the marshmen, and he lives among the marshmen with pretensions of being apolitical but without realising that he cannot be. Whereas he sees himself as an agent of strictly humanitarian interests, over time he fails to see that his interests conflict with those of both his native country and the people of the marshlands. Although he wants nothing more than to practise his profession, to offer medical aid to the marshmen, the marshmen come to resent the ways in which his techniques and his disposition do not accommodate their cultural customs and the government of his native country comes to see him as guilty of treason. Finally, for the assistance he provides to enemies of the state, he is apprehended by representatives of his government and imprisoned for some twenty-one years. His release, however, is the event with which Marshlands opens before it takes the double plunge into the doctor’s past. Thus, as Matthew Olshan himself has written, “the reader’s sense of [the doctor] as a victim… slowly give[s] way to an awareness of his complicity in the crimes against his beloved marshmen.” That’s irony at work. Yet there’s no reason to think that this is the sole effect of the reverse chronology, nor even that it obstructs the “propulsion” of the narrative. While Olshan admits that the chronology drains Marshlands of dramatic suspense, the novel doesn’t entirely lack suspense so much as it finds suspense in exposition rather than drama. The question that draws the reader into Marshlands is not “what happens next?” but “why is what is happening, happening?” and what follows the inciting incident — the doctor’s release from prison — is simply a search for causes instead of a series of consequences.

The same could easily be said of any number of other works of literature. Half of the Sherlock Holmes stories operate on the same grounds, albeit without so starkly foregrounding the regression of narrative causality. For reviewers of Marshlands, though, it proved to be a little too much to take, too great a departure from narrative convention — which is a shame when the novel’s greater virtues lie in a series of other unconventional moves that remain overlooked.

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