Real-World References in Fiction

Learning from Anne Carson’s “The Beauty of the Husband” how to integrate real-world references into fiction.

Fiction mustn’t begrudge the setting.

Gripping plot and solid character-building are necessary, but interest is still often derived from the specific where, be it your street, Seattle, Middle Earth, or Mars.

However, occasionally the narrative is only loosely tethered to a place, if at all. Then the details come from the characters and their internal worlds, which have to be richly furnished with knowledge, sensibilities, traumas, psychoses, which in turn have to be labelled, easily recalled, and presented in a way that resonates with the reader.

Resonance comes through recognition, and is achieved by recalling common facts—scientific, geographic, historic, cultural, mythological, literary. We’ve all probably heard of Plato, World War II, and the Internet (my readers at least).

You see: lists, lists, and more lists of building blocks. They get boring. Quickly. Also, there are many choices to make, what to include, where. Different references to the real world ground the world of the story differently, and the audience self-selects for those who appreciate that particular grounding.

For example, Anne Carson’s verse-novel The Beauty of the Husband references Duchamp on the first page, to set the mood for a tale of a broken marriage.

So Duchamp
of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors

which broke in eight pieces in transit from the Brooklyn Museum

to Connecticut (1912)

Even if you were unaware of Duchamp’s mixed-media installation, the mention of artist, work, place, and time, flicks colour onto the background of Carson’s literary painting, so to speak. You know what to expect.

Such references—which are neither part of a traditional, physical setting, nor outright quotes of external sources (though there are some)—are difficult to integrate so the reader doesn’t perceive them as mini info-dumps. It’s a skill, and the first step to mastering it is learning from well-wrought examples.

Here is what I learned from Carson.
The details of the setting

To understand my commentary you need to know the book concerns a wife, an unfaithful husband, and their tatterdemalion marriage.

Historical reference as complex military simile:

The wife’s defence of her honour was a priori doomed. It were as if …

As if Kutuzov had found himself charging across the battlefield of Borodino

not the emperor Napoleon but a certain old king Midas
whose weapons
touched half the Russian army into bitter boys of gold.

In 1812, the Russian army, led by Kutuzov, tried to stop Napoleon’s advance towards Moscow in Battle of Borodino. Midas is the greedy mythological king who asked that everything he touched turned to gold. Midas’s touch was both lethal to all life and would have killed him, had it not been reversed: his food and water became gold too.

(Note the specially apt phrase bitter boys of gold.)

Historical reference as analogy and mood-setter:

The wife describes how she “dethroned” her husband after he started cheating on her:

… You know
how novelist Ōe
describes the day Hirohito went on air and spoke
as a mortal man. “The adults sat around the radio
and cried.

Children gathered in the dusty road and whispered bewilderment.
and disappointed that their emperor had spoken in a voice.
Looked at one another in silence. How to believe God had become human

on a designated summer day?”

Novelist Kenzaburō Ōe deals with the topics of the nuclear power. Hirohito was the 124th Emperor of Japan, whom a youthful Ōe had considered to be a living god.

Philosophical reference as simile and authority:

Wife and husband argue about his infidelity until he admits it:

You’re right
Never oh all right once—

which, like the chain of Parmenides’ well-rounded Truth you can follow
around in a circle and always end up where you began, for
“it is all one to me where I start—I arrive there again soon enough”

Parmenides of Elea, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, discusses The Way of Truth in his only work On Nature.

Mythological reference as part of allegorical message:

The wife recalls her mother’s reaction to the wooing of the future husband.

To abolish seduction is a mother’s goal.
She will replace it with what is real: products.
Demeter’s victory
over Hades
does not consist in her daughter’s arrival from down below,
It’s the world in bloom–
cabbages lures lambs broom sex milk money!
These kill death.

Demeter is the Greek goddess of harvest. Her daughter, Persephone, was abducted by the god of the underworld, Hades, but is allowed to visit her mother for half of each year, during spring and summer. (This is why there are seasons.)

Literary reference as implication:

The wife describes how she couldn’t have gotten away from her husband’s beauty even if she’d tried—at least this is my interpretation of the following reference:

and as Kafka said in the end
my swimming was of no use to me you know I cannot swim after all.

This paradoxical epigram stems, it seems, from Kafka’s notebooks in which he recorded dreams and thoughts. A man is crowned Olympic champion in swimming, but he admits that he doesn’t know how to swim.

Literary reference as springboard for self-commentating:

(The meta element.)

The wife uses italics a few lines earlier to ask: What does not wanting to desire mean? She then goes on to question her use of italics.

Printing a passage in italics is a primitive way of soliciting attention
warns Fowler’s English Usage
appending as an example of this miserable mode of emphasis
“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.”
But emphasis is too general a word
for the dip and slant
of mindfulness
that occurs in cognition just
there: singe it.

I admit partiality to Fowler’s quotes, having just finished a series of posts on his Dictionary. (Although, I read the entry and I didn’t think the Sherlock example was given as an illustration of primitive use.)

Literary reference as stepping stones in argument:

Also, as geographic reference and indication of how far from home (Western) couples are willing to go to sort through domestic garbage.

But you overlook
an important cultural function of games.
To test the will of the gods.
Huizinga reminds us that war itself is a form of divination.

Husband and wife did not therefore engage in murder
but continued their tour of the Peloponnese

Johan Huizinga was a Dutch historian in the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote Homo Ludens, a book on the cultural importance of play. But you need none of this information to appreciate Carson’s couple at war.

Literary reference as sophisticated dialogue:

Before you can smile, you have to remember that during his travels, Gulliver meets the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses.

And upstairs that night, which proved a long night, as he was dragging
his wounded honor about the hotel room like a damaged queen of moths
because she mentioned Houyhnhnms and he objected
to being “written off as an object of satire,” they moved
several times through a cycle of remarks like—

The strategies Carson employs in these examples are specific to her subject, but they illustrate the diversity of possible integrations. Crucially, her real-world references are delivered in a convincing setup and by a plausible voice, which are the only two guidelines that matter. Strictly so. Because unlike with a questionable plot twist or a weak character that take time to be discovered, a single misplaced reference can break the believability of the story-world.

It really does take special skill to quote a dictionary in verse and get away with it.

But it’s been done. So you can tread the path, until you’re ready to veer off into the tall grasses.

You can always veer off into the tall grasses.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

2 thoughts on “Real-World References in Fiction”

  1. I really must admit to liking and feeling comfortable with a story, no matter how fictional, that has street names and detail such as the number on the tram. And I try to use it when I write. – the downside is that my sister always writes and claims that ‘we never lived in that street’ .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fact-checkers, the fiction-busters of, well, fiction!

      What do you think about referencing dictionaries, philosophers, myths? I enjoy it so long as the story still comes through (and the references aren’t obtrusive).


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