I’ve been listening to Jack McDevitt‘s Time Travelers Never Die on the way to and from campus these days. (I was slogging through Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, which I think would be an excellent book to read on paper but which wasn’t the best for listening.) McDevitt’s book so far, after listening to half it, is a fun romp, but I can’t quite tell yet if it’s more. But this morning I heard an interesting chapter that I wanted to think through here:
The time travelers have traveled to the library in Alexandria, hung out with Aristarchus, and scanned a few of Sophocles’ lost plays. When they return home to 2019, they send one to a scholar, who reads it to try to discover its authenticity–she knows nothing of the time travel. McDevitt summarizes the play, the Achilles, for his readers, but he doesn’t give any of the actual dialogue.
The layers of fiction here are intriguing, no? The scholar is reading the play trying to discover if it’s really by Sophocles, and as she does so we readers think, almost simultaneously,
- “Come on! The plot sounds so Sophoclean because it is Sophoclean! They really got it from the past, so it’s totally valid! Believe it!” And,
- “Wait, this play doesn’t actually exist in the real world–I almost forgot! It sounds real to us in summary, but that summary was carefully constructed by McDevitt to sound authentic as part of his novel.”
In other words, the summary sounds so much like Sophocles that we’re supposed to root for a character to believe that it’s real, even as we know that it isn’t real. We’re rooting for ourselves to be faked out by a forgery. And the fact that we’re carefully given a summary but no actual dialogue helps ensure that the summary will succeed in sounding valid; we’re given only so much information on which to judge.
Is there a connection here to teaching composition here? I’m not sure . . . but I’m reminded of Candace Spigelman’s “Teaching Expressive Writing as a Narrative Fiction,” which I read two or three years ago. She tackles the question of students inventing life stories when writing assigned personal narrative essays, reminding us that all personal narratives are constructed, dishonest in one sense or another. (I’m oversimplifying.)
So I find myself approving of McDevitt’s complex rhetorical move, wondering if there’s a lesson there about constructing layers of meaning and truth in writing of any genre, layering sources with reports about sources and my own narratives about sources in a way that constructs the reader’s understanding exactly as I want it to. And that’s something worth giving students practice in . . . somehow.