Clean Bill of Health: The Novel’s Myriad Roads to Recovery

March 15, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 12 10 min read

covercover“These aren’t particularly healthy times,” wrote Zadie Smith in her 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel.” Casting Tom McCarthy’s Remainder as a violent, avant-garde rejection of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, she dramatized an “ailing” literary culture where “a breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.”

Now that we’re a couple years into the new decade, it’s revealing to glance over our shoulders at the 2000s and see so much hand wringing about the health of literature. Sure, the State of Writing is an evergreen topic, and with all the political, cultural, and technological disruption at the turn of the millennium, folks had good reason to be nervous. Yet in retrospect, it’s disturbing to read so many famous writers in famous venues anxiously gerrymandering the literary map, roughly along the lines of Traditional Literature versus so-called Experimental Writing.

A quick trip in the Wayback Machine takes us to September 2002. A year after his spat with Oprah made him a household name in well-shod neighborhoods, Jonathan Franzen appraises William Gaddis in The New Yorker, lamenting that novelists have lost their grip on the public consciousness. Are books just too hard-to-read these days? Do writers even care about audience anymore? Franzen sketches two types of novelists: Contract writers who “sustain a sense of connectedness,” and Status writers for whom “difficulty tends to signal excellence.” He wastes no time letting us know which card he carries. “The Status position is undeniably flattering to a writer’s sense of importance. In my bones, though, I’m a Contract kind of person.”

Flash forward to 2005 and witness Ben Marcus slamming Franzen to the asphalt in Harper’s, defending all the “alien artisans, those poorly named experimental writers with no sales, little review coverage, a small readership, and the collective cultural pull of an ant.” Bullies like Franzen reinforce the status-quo when young writers ought to be pushing linguistic barriers and forging new neural pathways. Marcus is especially miffed that Franzen once used a New Yorker column to crap on the tiny avant-garde press Fiction Collective 2. “In Franzen’s world a small press that publishes experimental fiction is a convenient villain as audience-safe as a Muslim terrorist in a movie.”

Jump ahead to 2007, and Cynthia Ozick materializes in Harper’s to chide both Franzen and Marcus for their petty, ahistorical pissing match. “Why must one literary form lust to disposes another?” she asks, likening their argument to a gang fight. “The Bloods and Crips would be right at home in this alley.” Ozick is also keen to diagnose a sickly literary culture, but to her mind, the primary ailment is the dearth of rigorous literary criticism. For writers to discuss literature in such binary terms is ridiculous. “The novels that crop up in any given period are like the individual nerves that make up a distinct but variegated sensation, or act in chorus to catch a face or a tone…the white noise of the era that claims us all.”

Which brings us back to Smith’s “Two Paths” in The New York Review of Books, a thoughtful answer Ozick’s call for more insightful, sensitive criticism. Despite framing the Realist and Avant-Garde traditions as violent opponents, Smith at least gestures toward their points of connection. “At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov…”

Yet after lingering a moment to admire these bountiful crossroads, Smith resumes her polarizing discourse: Fictional possibilities have narrowed, and the literary culture has fallen ill.

Meanwhile, as the luminaries raced to diagnose Literature as if they were doctors on the season finale of House, 21st-century Literature was going viral on the Internet and in the little magazines. You lived through it, so I’ll spare you the details, but please tolerate 10 quick bullet points (in no special order) illustrating how vigorously literature and publishing were shaken during the 10 years since Franzen’s essay appeared:

  • Oprah’s Book Club went supernova.
  • Entire forests breathed sighs of relief as dozens of print book review sections went the way of the Dodo.
  • Online venues like this one have replaced or at least supplemented the literary supplements.
  • Millions of devoted bibliophiles reluctantly began e-reading.
  • Instead of disappearing, print became more democratized, insofar as anyone with access to word processing software and a few hundred dollars can publish their own book in seven to 10 business days.
  • Tiny presses and lit mags are sprouting like tulips or dandelions, depending on your worldview.
  • Those tiny presses are now winning Pulitzers and National Book Awards and National Book Critics Circle Awards, and those tiny lit mags are landing more stories and essays in the Best anthologies.
  • “Literary” genre novels are A-OK!
  • The mainstream pop entertainment complex regularly taps literary novelists like Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Richard Price, David Benioff, Jennifer Egan, and others to provide rich source material for big-budget dramas.
  • A writer like Ben Marcus, whose sublimely weird The Age of Wire and String originally appeared with Dalkey Archive, is now published by Knopf, complete with prominent coverage in major outlets, a swell tour, and a trippy trailer.

Now I’m neither a doctor nor an esteemed literary critic, but it seems that either the literary culture has made a miraculous recovery, or it wasn’t that sick in the first place. Which is to say that when those famous writers were so certain the patient was ailing, perhaps they were looking at the wrong patient. Lately it seems like whether you write unconventional novels or straight-laced novels or novels replete with vampires and weremonkeys, there are more ways than ever before to get your work out to readers. And not just on Lulu, iUniverse or Blogger.

Consider Marcus’ “alien artisans.” Even a quick glance suggests that life ain’t half bad for writers of unconventional prose. The innovative fiction being published today is too multifarious for neatly defined schools, but at least a handful of writers can be unified, if not aesthetically, then by the amount of attention they’ve received. Ryan Call, Blake Butler, and Tao Lin come to mind as three who’ve won fancy awards or scored national reviews or climbed from tiny presses to New York houses. These writers might not be stage diving from MFA programs into a sea of adoring literary agents, but they’re findings readers in their own way on their own time, building audiences that may prove to be more loyal and sustainable than those erected overnight by conglomerate publishers.

covercoverPerhaps no young writer is more emblematic of this sea change than Amelia Gray. Her 120-story collection AM/PM was published by Featherproof Books in 2009, and was more likely to be reviewed in The Eugene Weekly than Entertainment Weekly. Powered by a Kickstarter funded book tour, Gray and others traveled to indie stores and bars along the West Coast, earning readers book by book, beer by beer. A year later, her second collection Museum of the Weird won the Innovative Fiction Prize from Fiction Collective 2 — that very same rogue press that Franzen mocked in The New Yorker.

The Sickly Literary Culture narrative imagines Gray “toiling” in obscurity for decades if not her entire career. Yet now with her debut novel Threats, Gray has made the leap to Farrar, Straus and Giroux — the House of Franzen! That’s not to suggest that any publisher is an empirical benchmark for literary merit — and in most cases I couldn’t give a flying fig where or how a book came to be published — but given the pervasive strangeness of Gray’s work, I wonder if her grassroots ascension to a big-time press might be evidence that our literary culture is far more robust than the doctors would have us believe.

coverNarrated in a precisely controlled 3rd person, Threats is the story of a childless husband and wife in Ohio: David, a disgraced dentist, and Franny, an aesthetician who specializes in chemical peels. On a cold winter morning, Franny stumbles in from the backyard, barefoot and bleeding. She says to forget about calling the fire department. No telling what may have killed her. “David sat next to his wife for three days. They leaned against each other and created a powerful odor. In that way, it was like growing old together.”

With Franny gone, David scarcely leaves his ghostly abode, which is also his former childhood home. Soon Franny’s former boss at the salon sends a group of five girls over to give him a haircut in the kitchen, yet they go about the job without speaking to him. “One of the girls said nothing the entire time, but instead hummed a tune that was familiar to David. He thought of his mother cutting his hair while he sat on a wooden chair wedged into the bathtub.” Unsettling, one-off encounters like this pace the entire book, usually in settings as domestic as the post office, the laundromat, or the bus stop.

In a grief-struck stupor, David bumbles about for days, pissing his pants, growing paranoid, spraying Franny’s perfume in his mouth until it makes him retch. He is convinced that the front doorknob is electrified, which is why soft-boiled Detective Chico and his partner have to climb through the window to ask questions about Franny. As the story proceeds, a series of strange written threats begin appearing in David’s coffee maker, in his bathroom, and other increasingly bizarre places in his home and across town:


Over 77 short chapters, this slim book gets weirder and weirder, answering questions with more questions. A few central mysteries propel the skeletal plot forward. What exactly happened to Franny? Who is responsible for these threats? Why is David so haunted by his past? Years ago, Detective Chico responded to a distress call from an old hotel that may hold the key (or a key) to the entire mystery:

The call came in concurrently with an ambulance call for a drowning. No residents came out to greet the siren. The noise set off wails from the two or three children who were heard but not seen in the recesses of the motel. Their noise made it seem as if the building itself was crying, the sound released from multiple points.

In “Two Paths,” Zadie Smith observed that the primary mode of postmodern metafiction was to play with the notion of the first person and the question of where there narrator is coming from. Yet it’s the measured fluctuations of Gray’s third-person narration that make Threats such an interesting read. Crystalline descriptions of domestic life belie passages of uncanny imagery and existential dread, and the result is a generally unreliable atmosphere where emotion and metaphor are askew, and even the laws of time and space are vulnerable to subtle shifts in mood.

Example: A doctor visits David’s kitchen to inquire about his mental health. She’s spoken to a few of Franny’s former co-workers who claimed never to have met him, joking that maybe he didn’t even exist. When David mentions the girls who came to cut his hair, the doctor points out that his hair is down to his ears. Later on, when David visits the salon in search of answers, the reader has to rely on confirmation from another character to be certain that the haircut indeed happened.

“Did you send some women from the salon to my home?”

“Some girls?”

“Some women, some girls. A group of them arrived a few days ago and said they had been sent to cut my hair. They were very kind and helpful. One of them cut my toenails.”

“Some girls,” Aileen said. She took a deep breath in and looked at the door. She was silent for long enough that he thought she hadn’t heard part of the question. “A group of girls. Yes, I sent over a group of girls from the salon. I thought it might make you feel better.”

“Thank you, it did.”

coverIn moments like these throughout the book, Gray calls to mind her literary forebears Kate Bernheimer and Donald Barthelme, but also filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman and David Lynch. As Chris Rodley, editor of the book Lynch on Lynch wrote, this is a borderland between dream and reality, “a badly guarded checkpoint where no one seems to be stamping passports.”

At one point David discovers that, unbeknownst to him, a trance regression therapist has been operating from his own wasp-infested garage, researching volumes of books to determine whether “you” or “love” is linked with more devastating sentences in the English language. Later, visiting his elderly mother at her home for women, David finds their heart-to-heart conversation dissolve into a discussion of quasi-Carmichael integers.

Yet just when you think the story might be veering too far to one side of the dream/reality border, Gray shifts modes. It’s as if she’s internalized FC2 Board Member Brian Evenson’s response to Ben Marcus’s Harper’s essay:

Realism and experimentalism are not alternatives in a binary opposition; instead, each exists on a continuum that runs between abstraction and representation. Great writers, instead of standing at one point on the continuum, chose to lie down along it. All writers can potentially reposition themselves not only from book to book but from sentence to sentence.

The only thing predictable about Threats is that the story will constantly reposition itself. We find lyrically realistic discussions of David’s dental practice: “The patient might wince through the Xylocaine but would hold still as a sleeping dog while the dentin was breached and burred, Dycal installed to obliterate the possibility of a return, a white resin filler approximating the shape and texture of a tooth so closely it made David wish for his patients’ sake that the entire procedure could be performed without their knowledge, that they could come in unknowing and leave unknowingly improved.” Elsewhere, repeated chapters painstakingly transcribe David’s voicemail: “Message erased. Next message. From, phone number three three zero, eight four five, free four three three. Received, October fifteenth at eleven-eleven a.m.” Elsewhere, sudden ruminations on loneliness while sorting socks at the laundromat: “Think about just a pair of people, how they can sit in a room and stare. These are not strangers to each other. They have spent nights sharing their secrets. They see each other and think of those complexities, yet there is nothing that can truly draw them together. It’s a primary flaw of human distance. And what causes it?…Could it be what we eat for breakfast in the morning? Could it be the mechanism of the human eye? Could it be what we eat for breakfast in the morning?” Throughout, David yearns for Franny: “His wife’s scent that night was of a wet stone, as if she had been created from the stream that ran behind his childhood home.” Wherever the narrative stands on the continuum, it simmers with tragicomic dread.

Smith argued that that “the American metafiction that stood in opposition to Realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history…dismissed, by our most famous public critics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart.” Threats is too slippery for a safe corner, too haunted to lack heart. Following Gray’s aesthetic leaps, we forego a varnished emotional banister for disquieting cracks of perception and pain. On any given page you might laugh, cringe, or scratch your head. This is a book that operates on numerous planes of reality, that allows you to peer into the many windows of one artist’s imagination.

None of this is to say that Threats is a watershed moment in avant-gardism, nor that it’s even all that avant-garde. As Ozick wrote, “The avant-garde’s overused envelope was pushed long ago…” In many ways, this latest garde of innovative novelists is rekindling the embers of a more surreal period in American fiction, or else smuggling ashore aesthetics that have been prevalent in poetry and international fiction for decades.

You’ll know within 20 pages if this book is right for you. Either way, it’s all good. This book is too daring for universal acclaim. But let’s set aside this notion that our literary culture is too sickly to tolerate innovative prose. Whether you like Threats or not, let’s not define this kind of novel as oppositional to the realist mode. Books like this deserve to be main courses, not side dishes. As Garth Risk Hallberg wrote in response to “Two Paths” here last year, “What we need, as readers and writers, is not to side with some particular ‘team,’ and thus to be liberated from the burden of further thinking. Rather, we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning.”

Of course, famous writers aren’t going to stop probing the literary culture for illnesses, so let’s challenge them to diagnose other chronic conditions, starting with the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in our magazines. Insofar as aesthetic diversity is concerned, unconventional prose has a place at the table, or at least the avant-garde has been absorbed into the garde, and the next avant-garde is out there somewhere, reading from a chapbook to three people in a bar.

Threats proves that there are many paths for the novel, for the chapter, for the sentence. It’s an act of what Zadie Smith calls constructive deconstruction — a novel that like Remainder “clears away a little of the dead wood, offering a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.” Writers like Amelia Gray see not one thorny alternative road, but rather a whole open territory where artists use old roadblocks to fuel bonfires.

Image Credit: Flickr/rosmary

is the author of The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First Century Amazon, out now from Picador. The recipient of a 2014 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he teaches writing in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.