Last month, for book club, I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic sci-fier The Left Hand of Darkness. Set on the planet Gethen, the novel takes the form of several documents brought together as a kind of report, including the observations of an interplanetary envoy, the diary of a native, and bits of recorded Gethenian mythology.
This sort of novel is called “epistolary.” As a word, “epistolary” usually refers to snail-mail correspondence, but as far as I can tell, the category of epistolary novel is not so literally about letters: Included in this class is any novel that presents itself as a series of ordinary documents, like journal entries, e-mails, or even encyclopedia articles — not exclusively letters. So, for example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula “is told in epistolary format, as a series of letters, diary entries, and ships’ log entries, whose narrators are the novel’s protagonists, and occasionally supplemented with newspaper clippings relating events not directly witnessed” (per our friends at Wikipedia).
What’s important, it would seem, is that the epistolary novel purports to be a literary fragment taken right from the imaginary world it depicts. It is not given to the reader as a normal narrative, but as though it were a bit closer to being documentary evidence.
To talk about the state of being an epistolary novel, I’m just going to make up a word, “epistolocity,” because I’m going to talk a lot here about what it means for a piece of fiction to be a collection of faux documents rather than a traditional story. (“Epistolarity,” sadly, was taken.)
Anyway, I hadn’t thought about epistolocity – its uses and significance — in a long while before reading Left Hand last month. Now that I’m considering it again, I realize that I’ve long had the assumption (never quite articulated) that novels are written in epistolary form so that they can take on the likeness of a found document and convey themselves almost more like objective records than the fabricated fictions that they are. The (hoped-for) advantage of making your novel epistolary, I figure, is that it might feel like a sheath of letters that a reader, wandering around her local bookshop, might reasonably find not among the novels, but maybe on the memoir shelf, or perhaps over in the history section.
By extension, I think of the attraction of epistolocity as being that one can to do away with at least one of the conventions that reminds you that you are reading a fiction: The fact that a story is being handed to you as such, a novel presented as one. The average novel can’t pretend it’s anything else; it has no reason for being in printed black and white or on screen other than as a contrived fiction. Its prose has a touch of being self-aware insofar as the telling of the story has no purpose in being anything other than the art that it is. The epistolary novel has no intermediary narrator telling you the story, or, for that matter, no inexplicably accessible first-person perspective.
If you’ve read my blog assiduously — as you should, both for your spiritual and physical health — you might have noticed that I am often thinking about the artificiality of fiction. I’m a tad obsessed with the process of presenting, staging, and delivering stories, and the efforts novels and movies make to smooth your way in forgetting or ignoring that you are reading something man-made and constructed. For most stories, most of the time, it is not in their interest (as it were) to remind you that Madame Authoress or Seignior Author jotted down these words at some point or that the Director shot and edited this film. Epistolocity always seemed to me like a nice way to grease those wheels and help you forget that a story is being delivered to you.
the epistolocity in question
Which brings me to Le Guin’s much-celebrated sci-fi epistolary tale. The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of Genly Ai, an emissary from a fairly progressive-sounding interworld collaborative called the Ekumen. We meet Genly well into his mission on the planet Gethen, where he is making the Ekumen’s first official contact with the locals.
It’s a bit involved to explain why, but take it for granted that while Genly is human, so are the Gethenians, even though they have never interacted with the Ekumen before and were ignorant of it until Genly’s arrival. More to the point, the Gethenians, although being human, are for whatever reason biologically quite different than your average person: Gethenians do not have a sex or gender most times of the month. They only become men or women in their monthly mating period, and any individual may well become either, depending on the circumstance. (This monthly mating period is also the only time they have sex.)
The novel is told primarily as a series of reports by Genly to his Ekumen brethren, but also sometimes in the form of diaries or even Gethenian lore served up as though from an anthropologist. Intriguingly, even here — with this most improbable assembly of archival material — I am tempted to see the epistolocity of the book as slyly fostering a sense that the prose is merely a record taken by a real man, and not a fabulist’s tale.
I might be the only person who reads this message inherently into the epistolary form. But if this is not the point of this or any other novel’s epistolocity (having made that word up, I’m going to use it as much as possible), then I fail to see the form’s purpose, even in a work of science fiction.
For the moment, let’s take it for granted that I’m right about the purpose of epistolocity, which means we’ve got ourselves quite a case study in Le Guin’s book. If the epistolary novel’s purpose is to make us forget the artificiality of the novel, The Left Hand of Darkness subverts that purpose, which is maybe precisely why it’s made me think so much about it.
To begin with, there is the simple matter of translation. The novel itself is almost entirely in an English contemporary to our moment in America, except for a small set of words that Le Guin made up and which are native to Gethen: “kemmer” and “shifgrethor” are the two common examples that come to mind. Though almost all of the dialogue occurs in tongues native to Gethen, it is written in our English.
I say “our” English because it’s possible Genly himself is a native English speaker. He’s from Earth, though I don’t think the novel ever tells us from what part. Even if he natively speaks English, however, it seems unlikely that linguistic drift wouldn’t have made his futuristic English far from the English of the 1969 America Le Guin wrote in.
That is to say, there are many kinds of translation going on here — first from the languages of Gethen to Genly’s dialect of English, and then Genly’s dialect to our own. The same is more or less true of everything in the book, even the sections not from Genly himself.
It maybe sounds like I wish this were the first novel written in an alien language, but it’s more like I’m trying to point out how having it in the epistolary form is at odds with the alien world it takes place on. While the effect of an epistolary novel is (in my view) to make the art seem more immediate and real, less made-up, in this novel the technique is almost perverse: It is like a folk song about linear algebra or a fairy tale about the Mall of America, insofar as it takes a convention that is warm and cozy and applies it to a subject that is inherently foreign and unfamiliar.
And a foreign planet it is. One of the key questions here is whether Le Guin should have used “he” or “she” or some other third pronoun to describe the intersexual Gethenians. This issue took up a lot of book club time, and rightly so; my take-away from the discussion was that Le Guin would have been better off using some ambisexual alternative to “he” or “she” — maybe “ze” or some such. The book makes it clear that Gethenians clearly aren’t actually hes or shes, and a third pronoun would remind us of this basic fact on an intuitive level.
It’s one of many aspects of their lives — they’re not big on war, either, which I was a bit incredulous about — that make their existence viscerally different than our own. Whether Ursula K. Le Guin meant to subvert and upend the epistolary form by expressing through it a vision of a radically alien society, I don’t know, but if she did, it’s genius. If she didn’t, well, I liked the book in any event.