Has there, in American letters, at least, ever been a better noticer than John Updike? By “noticer,” I don’t mean “writer of detail,” exactly. There are many writers whose use of detail I find more narratively effective: Saul Bellow, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Stephanie Vaughn, etc. Updike’s use of detail, as I discussed in a recent essay, often impinges upon the realism, or “realism,” of his fictional worlds, overlarding them with sensory detail that too often alerts the reader to the writer’s presence. But in terms of pure, preternatural eye for the minute, the ephemeral, and the easily missed, it is difficult to think of another writer who can compare. Here are a couple of excerpts from “Incest,” one of the earlier stories (contained, in fact, in the wonderful The Early Stories), many of which endeavor to capture the mundane drama of young married life, as played out in a series of similar, cramped New York apartments. In the first excerpt, Lee, husband and father, is cleaning up the sugar his daughter has spilled: With two sheets of typing paper, using one as a brush and the other as a pan, he cleaned up what she had spilled on the counter, reaching around her, since she kept her position standing on the chair. Her breath floated randomly, like a butterfly, on his forearms as he swept. Later, he watches his wife drying diapers in the bathroom: Looking, Lee saw that, as Jane squinted, the white skin at the outside corner of her eye crinkled finely, as dry as her mother’s, and that his wife’s lids were touched with the lashless, grainy, desexed quality of the lids of the middle-aged woman he had met not a dozen times, mostly in Indianapolis, where she kept a huge brick house spotlessly clean and sipped vermouth from breakfast to bed. The random breath on the forearm like a butterfly, the fine-grained quality of dry eyelid skin—these are signature Updike details. What other writer would notice, let alone bother to describe, the texture of his wife’s eyelids? He is a master at this kind of description, keying in on the microscopic and near-invisible, not as world-building flourishes, but as primary detail. The child’s breath on Lee’s forearm hairs is a perfect metaphor for Updike’s sensory apparatus—I imagine this apparatus as fine cilia, authorial cat whiskers, delicately picking up the slightest shift in descriptive breeze. This keenness extends to non-sensory details, the internal mechanism of a character’s mundane thoughts. We have closely followed Lee from, in his words, breakfast to bed, and we lie with him as he deploys a favorite tack against the insomnia their tiny, hot apartment causes him, a mental exercise he refers to as the insomnia game. The insomnia game sees Lee working his way through the alphabet in the following manner: He let the new letter be G. Senator Albert Gore, Benny Goodman, Constance Garnett, David Garnett, Edvard Grieg, Goethe was Wolfgang and Gorki was Maxim. Farley Granger, Graham Greene… Detailing a character’s nighttime mental routine is unusually perceptive to begin with, but true to form, Updike finds a higher register of his protagonist’s attention to pay attention to, as Lee pauses his list to work through the less familiar foreign first names of Goethe and Gorki. These moments of deep attention are not there to embellish a larger narrative point—they are the point. In the space of several pages, an accumulation of these details create a world in miniature and a feeling of rare intimacy with its inhabitants. The apartment stories—“Incest,” and others like it: “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” “Sunday Teasing,” “Should Wizard Hit Mommy,” etc.—seem to me the perfect vehicle for Updike’s rare gifts. There is, after all, a claustrophobia to this kind of detail, and these small city apartments match setting and theme to technique. The apartments become a kind of panopticon, with Updike’s thousand eyes relentlessly monitoring the stifled desires and tense moods of their main characters—almost invariably a young married man. At the same time, the molecular focus that Updike brings to these stories manages to turn one-bedroom shotguns into universes of discovery. There is a sense in these stories of relentless searching for a truth or truths that can only be found by plumbing down into the granular, the microscopic; these tiny details both encode and reveal the larger hidden structures we move through unaware. A small New York apartment contains an entire life—the miracles (and curses) of marriage, childbirth, sex, and death. [millions_ad] The stories themselves follow suit, finding the largest meaning in the smallest plot point. For the most part, these tales bear little in common with others of their seeming kin—John Cheever’s earlier stories, for example, many of which also center on young married couples pressure-cooking in tiny apartments. But Cheever, despite being an eccentric fabulist, is conventional in his adherence to traditional plot devices, the need for inciting incidents and escalating tension. There is no Enormous Radio in Updike, just a very small one playing in the background, the crackling sound agitating the room’s ambient emotion, and the humbleness of the device itself obscurely bothering Lee (or Richard or Arthur) trying to read in the next room. We seem to be dropped into these characters’ lives almost at random, the barest wisp of event enough cause for a story to coalesce. In “Walter Briggs,” for example, a couple driving home from a party (cars—or trains, or airplanes—like apartments, are ideal Updike sensory dioramas) attempts to remember people they met on their first wedded vacation: “How could you forget Roy? And then there was Peg Grace.” “Peg, Grace. Those huge eyes.” “And that tiny long nose with the nostrils shaped like water wings,” Claire said. “Now: tell me the name of her pasty-faced boyfriend.” “With the waxy blond hair. Lord. I can’t conceivably hope to remember his name. He was only there a week.” This goes on far longer than it would in the work of other writers, several pages. On and on they drone, exactly the kind of inane, half-focused conversation that composes the atomic structure of married life, exactly the kind of desultory scene typically excised from most stories. And yet: something snags—her enviable memory, and his inability to summon the name of a comic figure at the camp. Later, at the door of sleep, his mild frustration blends with a litany of details from the camp, and the sudden return of the man’s name—Walter Briggs—is like a poignant echo of his old love for his wife. In both their obsession with remembering tiny details, and their ability to do so, these two resemble their creator. Who, but Updike, would find erotic charge in a nostalgic memory competition? By so heavily foregrounding textural detail in these stories, Updike calls into question what constitutes a story to begin with. There is an aesthetic claim being made, that anything can be a story if you look closely enough. And the domestic sphere, Updike’s natural habitat and milieu, is all stifling closeness—what are marriages if not an infinite series of minute, learned, hateful, and joyful gestures, performed in the tiny theaters of our living rooms and beds? Here, the aesthetic claim grades into something that approaches a moral claim. A reader, waiting in these stories for twist or conflict or denouement, will get to the end unsatisfied, having missed the all intervening action, action that occurs on a moment-to-moment perceptual level. Life is like that, too. Although modern readers may justly find Updike morally distasteful on many counts—mid-century white male privilege, literary sexism, and political conservatism to name a few—he seems exemplary, at least, in the sense of how much attention a person ought to bring to bear on the banal splendidness that comprises their life. Taken as a whole, the attentiveness that Updike trains on these intermittently peaceful and unpeaceful homes becomes performative and self-justifying. Like a fantastically gifted magician, the show becomes less about the trick itself and more about the dexterity required to perform the trick. He is constantly finding the edge of his talent and reaching just beyond it for the detail so fine and fleeting that it is preposterous, even for him, to notice it. Yes, on a basic level, this is show-offy. But I sense that it also comes from a generous instinct, a desire to share something with the reader no one else has shared before. As he puts it in “Wife-Wooing”: “An expected gift is not worth giving.”
Punctuation, largely invisible and insignificant for normal people, as it should be, is a highly personal matter for writers. Periods, commas, colons, semi-colons: in their use or non-use and in their order and placement, can represent elaboration, conjecture, doubt, finality. And in aggregate, over the course of a text, the rhythms of punctuation advance an author’s worldview and personality as surely as any plot or theme. Patterns of punctuation usage are the writerly equivalent of an athlete’s go-to moves, or a singer’s peculiar timbre and range—those little dots and squiggles, in a sense, encode your voice. Anthony Powell’s colon (pardon the inadvertent image) is as signature as Kyrie Irving’s crossover or Rihanna’s throaty cry. For me, there is no punctuation mark as versatile and appealing as the em dash. I love the em dash in a way that is difficult to explain, which is, probably, the motivation of this essay. And my love for it is emphasized by the fact that many writers never, or rarely, use it—even disdain it. It is not, so to speak, an essential punctuation mark, the same way commas or periods are essential. You can get along without it and most people do. I don’t remember being taught to use it in elementary, middle, or high school English classes; I’m not even sure I was aware of it then, and I have no clear recollection of when or why I began to rely on it, yet it has become an indispensable component of my writing. It might be useful to include an official definition of the em. From The Punctuation Guide: “The em dash is perhaps the most versatile punctuation mark. Depending on the context, the em dash can take the place of commas, parentheses, or colons—in each case to slightly different effect.” The “slightly different” part is, to me, the em dash’s appeal summarized. It is the doppelgänger of the punctuation world, a talented mimic impersonating other punctuation, but not exactly, leaving space to shade meaning. This space allows different authors to use the em dash in different ways, and so the em dash can be especially revealing of an author’s style, even their character. The maestro of the em dash—as he was with many things (and apologies here, it is difficult not to annoyingly play, or seem to play, on a punctuation’s usage while writing about it)—was probably Vladimir Nabokov. The locus of Nabokov’s attention is usually at least half trained on the fictional document he’s producing, so em dashes often serve as a kind of in-text footnote. But in a more general sense, he simply employs them as part of his exemplary stylistic machinery, using them as counterweights against commas, as parenthetical ballast and rhetorical cog. In Lolita, Nabokov is engaged in creating a calibrated ironic voice that half-emulates speech while retaining its smooth literary surface, and em dashes enable a more precise pacing of words and thoughts from the sentence to paragraph level. A representative passage chosen completely at random: I launched upon an “Histoire abregee de la poesie anglaise” for a prominent publishing firm, and then started to compile that manual of French literature for English-speaking students (with comparisons drawn from English writers) which was to occupy me throughout the forties—and the last volume of which was almost ready for press by the time of my arrest. I found a job—teaching English to a group of adults in Auteuil. Notice how the use of em dashes here, not strictly prescribed by any pressing grammatical need (the first could be justly replaced with a comma, the second eliminated), are used to create an internal structure that bridges paragraphs. The long sentence at the end of the first paragraph closes with a short clause set off by an em dash, and the short sentence at the beginning of the next starts with a shorter clause also enclosed by the em. The chief effect of this kind of bracketing is, I think, intuitive and rhythmical, adding to Humbert’s pompous purr, but there is a secondary effect of conjoining the ideas of transgression (his arrest) and seeming normalcy (finding a job), a pas de deux central to Lolita’s thematic heart. [millions_ad] A more contemporary user of the em dash is Donald Antrim. Antrim’s em dash helps to create a faltering narration that expresses the pervasive emotional mood of his work, an almost paralytic anxiety. Take this first sentence, from the story “Ever Since:” Ever since his wife had left him—but she wasn’t his wife, was she? he’d only thought of her that way, had begun to think of her that way, since her abrupt departure, the year before, with Richard Bishop—Jonathan had taken up a new side of his personality and become the sort of lurking man who, say, at work or at a party, mainly hovers on the outskirts of other people’s conversations, leaning close but not too close… The narrator has only just begun to have a thought about Jonathan’s wife before a new thought intrudes, needlessly clarifying who she is to him before we even know who he is. “Needlessly” in story terms, though the larger narrative need is to exemplify, through halting syntax, Jonathan’s excruciatingly circumspect mental process. This is, to a degree, Antrim’s own process, and we get doses of it even in more remote, comic narration, such as in the long beginning sentence—Antrim is a great lover of long beginning sentences—of “An Actor Prepares:” Lee Strasberg, a founder of the Group Theatre and the great teacher of the American Method, famously advised his students never to “use”—for generating tears, etc., in a dramatic scene—personal/historical material less than seven years in the personal/historical past; otherwise, the Emotion Memory (the death of a loved one or some like event in the actor’s life that can, when evoked through recall and substitution, hurl open the floodgates, as they say, right on cue, night after night, even during a long run)—this material, being too close, as it were, might overwhelm the artist and compromise the total control required to act the part or, more to the point, act it well; might, in fact, destabilize the play; if, for instance, at the moment in a scene when it becomes necessary for Nina or Gertrude or Macduff to wipe away tears and get on with life; if, at that moment, it becomes impossible for a wailing performer to pull it together; if, in other words, the performer remains trapped in affect long after the character has moved on to dinner or the battlefield—when this happens, then you can be sure that delirious theatrical mayhem will follow. Here, Antrim actually violates, as he sometimes does, a basic rule of parenthetical em dash usage, that you can only use one set per sentence. The violation of this stricture is unsettling and makes it difficult to keep up with meaning. Which, in a sentence and story about artistic chaos and loss of control, is, of course, the point. Emily Dickinson is probably the most well-known user of the dash, to such an extent that “em” might justly be taken as short for “Emily.” She habitually ended lines with em dashes, sometimes to an obvious effect, sometimes not. Here is her most famous stanza: Because I could not stop for Death— He kindly stopped for me— The Carriage held but just Ourselves— And Immortality. What are the dashes doing here? On the one hand, since they don’t serve any obvious syntactical function, they can be read simply as a stylistic tic. But they do create a feeling of hesitation that serves the poetry. Without them, this stanza is a nicely crafted, clever piece of thinking about the inevitability and dignity of death. With them, we feel Dickinson’s hand hovering over the page, considering her subject. This lends a poignancy to the poem, a sense of the artist thinking through her subject, considering the terms of her own death. Her use of the em dash obliquely posits writing as an elaborative act, and in many of her poems the em transforms what would otherwise be somewhat inert, though great, common meter into something alive to itself, process-oriented. My own favorite use of the em dash is for elaboration, similar to the way many writers use colons. As a personal rule, I only use colons in a specific context: that is, if what follows answers the question what? Em dashes, I find useful for both narrowing and expanding a train of thought that might lose momentum in a new sentence—in this sense, they also stand in for the semicolon, but semicolons are best used (in my fuddled cosmology of punctuation) as dividing walls between two related but independent thoughts of approximate equal value (I wholly reject, by the way, that old bullshit about eliminating semicolons). In truth, I probably overuse the em, find too much pleasure in asides, in explanation. But I can’t do it, I cannot write terse little impregnable Tobias Wolffian sentences that stand on their own. Though I can admire a page of these sentences—the calm presiding rationality, like civilized people queueing to exit the building in a fire drill—I am drawn instinctively to the dithering em, some contingency always butting up, worrying the previous sentence before it’s had a chance to end. As Noreen Malone put it in a self-deprecating Slate article, “The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence.” This is true. But is efficiency the point or purpose of writing? It seems to me that novels, especially, are almost anti-efficiency devices. Yes, we want to communicate clearly, but sometimes, just as crucially, we also want to clearly communicate the difficulty of communicating clearly. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
“I think fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.” – W. G. Sebald That this is the age of first person seems undeniable. Essay and memoir are—have been for some time—culturally ascendant, with the lines between fiction and essay increasingly blurred (I’ve written about this here). In its less exalted form, first person dominates our national discourse in many guises: the tell-all, the blog post, the reality confessional booth, the carefully curated social media account, the reckless tweets of our demented president. We are surrounded by a multitude of first person narratives, vying for our time and attention, and we respond to them, in our work, and increasingly in our art, in first person. My impression, as a writer and teacher, is that over the last 10 or 15 years there has been a paradigmatic move toward first person as the default mode of storytelling. In a workshop of 20 student pieces, I’m now surprised if more than a third are written in third person. When I flip open a story collection or literary magazine, my eye expects to settle on a paragraph liberally girded with that little pillar of self. Anecdotal evidence tends to support this suspicion. A completely random example: six of the last 10 National Book Award winners have been first-person narratives; of the 55 previous NBA winners stretching from 2005 to 1950 (Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm), the tally is 40 to 15 in favor of third person. This is, of course, completely anecdotal and almost certainly statistical noise, to a degree. Still, it’s suggestive. As recently as 10 years ago, creative nonfiction specialist jobs barely existed at the university and graduate MFA level; last year, there were more creative nonfiction job openings than comparable tenure track positions for poets. Essay and memoir classes have sprung up everywhere. Whether this trend is significant and whether it will continue are debatable; that it is a trend, seems less so. It worries me that we may be slowly losing the cultural ability or inclination to tell stories in third person. Why does this matter? Because, I believe, third-person narration is the greatest artistic tool humans have devised to tell the story of what it means to be human. In How Fiction Works, James Wood cites Sebald, decrying third person as obsolete following the horrors of World War II. Wood comments, “For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat.” The general argument, as advanced by Sebald, and more recently, by writers like David Shields and Will Self, seems to go: Flaubertian third-person omniscient narration is a jerry-rigged, mechanistic anachronism blithely ignorant of the historical context that renders it obsolete; far from “realism,” it is almost wholly artificial, beginning in the first place with the artifice of a narrator and extending through the sleight-of-hand known as free indirect discourse (crudely put: the blending of narrator and character perceptions). First person narration, the corollary would go, is more immediate and less contrived. It is authentic. Most people seem to agree. These critical interpretations both reinforce and describe a more popular apprehension of first-person narrative—that it is the most direct and natural form of storytelling. In creative writing classes, teachers will often advise students to employ first person with more overtly raw or emotional material, operating on the rationale that first person has an implicit honesty third does not. Sebald’s quote—as to the inherent (and therefore inherently truthful) uncertainty of the essayistic perspective—is simply a more sophisticated version of this position, what we might call the naturalistic view of first person. First person, however, contains a contrivance central to its character that third person does not: audience. In first person, someone is addressing someone else, but absent narrative framing to position these someones—a la Holden Caulfield directing his speech to a ghostly doctor—we find ourselves in an inherently ambiguous space: to whom, exactly, is this person talking, and why? The uncertainty of this space, I would argue, is largely filled, intentionally or not, by the voice of the narrator, its presence and authority. Even if this narrator declaims her own uncertainty, she declaims it with certainty, and she declaims it toward an imagined audience, in a speaker/listener relationship. There are no competing voices, no opportunity for the objective telescoping of third person, and so the reader essentially become a jurist listening to a lawyer’s closing argument. In this sense, all first-person narration is unreliable, or placeable on a continuum of unreliability. It isn’t accidental that the greatest examples of the first-person novel—Lolita, The Good Soldier, Tristram Shandy—make ample use of unreliability and/or intricate frame narration. The best examples of the form lean as heavily as possible on first person’s audience-related pretenses. Third-person narration, in contrast, contains no similar inherent claim to authority, and therefore tends toward a version of the world that is more essentially descriptive in character. A third-person narrative, whether in the form of a short story or War and Peace, is a thing to be inspected by the reader. It is, in a sense, a closed system, a ship in bottle, and the reader can hold it up to the light to see how closely it resembles a real ship. If it does, part of the reading experience is to imagine it as the real thing; but it can be assumed, in a kind of contract on the part of intelligent writers and readers, that the shipbuilder is not pretending his model is fit for actual seafaring. In other words, the existence of a third-person narrator—that artificial authority Sebald found intolerable—signals the act of storytelling, and in doing so, encodes a structural uncertainty that first person lacks. Third-person narrators no longer walk onstage and deliver monologues, a la Jane Austen, but we still understand them to be devices in service of telling a story—a contrivance that announces itself as such. They are the artifice that enables the art, and they are truthful as to their own untruthfulness, or perhaps better, their truthlessness. Compared to the explicit machinery of third-person narration, first person’s artifice seems covert, a clandestine operation. This is not necessarily an argument against first-person narration—in able hands, this concealment can be a means of exposing greater truths about the subject of the writing or its writer—but it is an argument against the proposition that first person is somehow more transparent or “honest” than third. The other common objection to third-person narration, and by proxy an argument for first person, also concerns the artificiality of the third person narrator, not in artistic but rather, experiential terms. This is the second prong of the naturalist argument: it isn’t a thing that exists. No one walks into a room and thinks of themselves, “he walked into a room.” Also, no one simply watches other people walk into a room without being aware of their own frame of reference. And this is true: close third person, via free-indirect discourse, models human consciousness with an intimacy that strives toward first person’s access to a character’s thoughts and emotions. Why then, the argument goes, not dispense with this clumsy intermediary and go right to the source? Counterintuitively, third person achieves an effect, both in spite of and because of its narrator, that is more “realistic” than first. While no one walks into a room and thinks, “he walks into a room,” it can be asserted with even greater force that no one walks into a room and thinks, “I walk into a room.” No one, that is, who isn’t an imbecile or robot—not characters who figure heavily in the canon of great fictional protagonists. The experience of being a human is, in fact, an experience of dual consciousness. Human beings are social creatures, and human existence is an endless negotiation of the immediate, subjective perspective, and the greater objective context. We constantly divide our attention between the first- and third-person points of view, between desiring the shiny object in front of us and figuring out what it means for us to take it: who else wants it, what we have to do to get it, and whether it’s worth taking it from them. In this sense, close third person not only accurately models human cognition, but omniscient third does as well, since, while we cannot read other people’s minds, we are constantly inferring their consciousness—their motives and feelings. The human experience is a kind of constant jumping of these cognitive registers, from pure reptile-brain all the way up to a panoramic moral overview and back down, and human ingenuity has yet to invent a better means of representing this experience in art than the third-person narrator. The apparatus of third-person narration, while wholly artificial, ironically enables the most authentic depiction of the quagmire of personhood. Irony is key here, in both cause and effect. Third person’s scaffolding of multiple, competing levels of awareness is inherently, structurally ironic; the effect created by these slightly ill-fitting beams and joists, as the demands of narrative push and pull them against each other, is a large-scale, resonant irony. Writing about the ability of narrative to convey humanity’s huge profligacy of type, Adelle Waldman, in a New Yorker piece from 2014, quotes Leo Tolstoy’s depiction of Vronsky: He was particularly fortunate in that he had a code of rules which defined without question what should and should not be done. The code covered only a very small number of contingencies, but, on the other hand, the rules were never in doubt, and Vronsky, who never thought of infringing them, had never had a moment’s hesitation about what he ought to do. The rules laid it down most categorically that a cardsharper had to be paid, but a tailor had not; that one must not tell a lie to a man, but might to a woman, that one must not deceive anyone but one may a husband; that one must not forgive an insult but may insult others, etc. She says, “If someone like Vronsky were to give an account of his moral code, it would not, we can be sure, read in precisely these terms.” This is true but neglects an important aspect of this rendering of Vronsky’s moral code, for we see at once in this passage a social view of Vronsky’s hypocrisy that shades toward a self-awareness of his own hypocrisy. This shading—the ironic bounce of the repeated “never,” and the pompous “most categorically”—both enact Vronsky’s pompous hypocrisy and suggest a shiver of cognitive dissonance, of unease, that seems to come from Vronsky himself. The point is debatable—maybe Tolstoy is just calling Count Vronsky an asshole—but in a general sense, the ironic space that third person carves out creates a productive ambiguity that deepens character the same way these little ironies of the self, the simultaneity of objective and subjective, deepen human existence the more a person is aware of them. In this case, they suggest a Count Vronsky who is not only an asshole, but also, perhaps, very slightly aware of his own assholishness, as most assholes are. It at least implies that possibility—a complex position unavailable to first person, in which a Vronsky POV would essentially either cop to his own hypocrisy, or strategically introduce it through unwitting revelation in the usual reliable unreliable method. As a thought experiment, try to imagine Ulysses written in the first person, the dueling solitary consciousnesses of Stephen and Bloom. We are, of course, embedded deep in Bloom's and Stephens’s minds, but we are embedded there, via virtuoso free-indirect discourse rather than first-person. It is surprising, in a way, that Ulysses was not written in first—after all, here we have the summit of stream-of-consciousness narrative, with an emotional and associative immediacy that has informed 100 years of writing all the way to the essayists of the moment. Not only this, but the fracturing of consciousness and Dublin’s social institutions as represented in the book are (as we understand, in a somewhat trite though probably accurate sense) a cultural response the First World War; per Sebald, we would expect such a narrative to dispense with the puppetry of third-person narration. So why not in first? What would be lost? Among other things, it would more or less be simply a record of human confusion. It would be an exhaustive, exhausting trek through Dublin, unremitting in its assault on our senses. Ulysses is already exhausting enough in this regard, but many of the moments of relief are moments of perspectival shift: the wider view of Stephen in the classroom, for example, or the anti-Semitic Citizen throwing a biscuit tin at Bloom as he flees the pub, righteous and triumphant. These, and similar moments allowed by the omniscient narration, crucially allow in other people, complicating the dominant note of mental claustrophobia. I say crucially, because the novel is not, ultimately, about mental claustrophobia, about being trapped in oneself; it is about the opposite, about the inevitability and value of social connection. A Ulysses in first would represent, in spite of its erudition and catholicity of reference, essentially a shriveling worldview, rather than the enlarging one it offers. HCE: Here Comes Everybody. All of which is to say that the current critical and cultural movement away from third-person narration should be taken seriously, and to some extent—as much as such a thing is possible—resisted. Matters of taste come and go, and it may seem silly to imagine third-person narration disappearing. After all, it has persisted in its current form for going on 300 years. But many pinnacles of high art recede and disappear in the face of changing norms. It was probably similarly hard for the 19th- century art lover to imagine classical portraiture and Renaissance brushwork disappearing. David Shields and similar critics may be dismissed as extreme, but they give voice to a larger cultural impulse, the enthronement of unmediated personal experience and feeling (as though such a thing were possible, even if desirable) as the height of written expression. Reviewing Meghan Daum’s essay collection, The Unspeakable, Roxane Gay writes, “When it comes to the personal essay, we want so much and there is something cannibalistic about our desire. We want essayists to splay themselves bare. We want to see how much they are willing to bleed for us.” The promotion of this kind of writing is, in turn, a collective response to larger cultural currents, among them the still shockingly recent advent of the Internet and reality television. In this context, it is not hard to imagine omniscient third person, with its many registers of complex irony and representation, becoming the truly outmoded art form that Sebald and others would like it to be, an ornate artifact of a slower and more explicable age. And it’s true that in a very real sense, third person is not the narrative mode of our time. A Henry James novel is essentially the anti-tweet. Its aesthetic roots are in a more contemplative era, an era with fewer distractions and, simultaneously, more incentive to consider one’s place in the larger social context of a world that was rapidly expanding. Now that the world has expanded to its seeming limits, we see an urge to put the blinders on and retreat into the relative safety of personal narrative. This impulse should be resisted. We need to engage with our world and one another, making use of the most sensitive instruments of understanding we have at our disposal. Image Credit: Pixabay.
There is a special joy in finding someone who hates a book as much as you do. But not just any hate, and not just any book. There are plenty of books you may not like: books that fail to deliver on their explicit premise or implicit promise, books with middles that sag like the floor of a teardown, books with underwritten or overworked prose, books that strain credulity, books that could stand to strain credulity a bit more, books that are too long, books with bad covers, books that just aren’t very good. The world is full of books you may not like, and it is not hard to be generous about them, especially as a writer—because, as well you should know, books are incredibly hard to write, and even harder to write well. A genuinely good book is something of a rarity; a genuinely great book is something of a miracle. So if someone, in your estimation, misses the mark, that is an easy thing to forgive, either by way of reading charitably or simply putting down the book in question. The type of book I describe here must be a book that you not only dislike, but that everyone else likes, a lot. By “everyone,” I mean friends and family, the general reading public, and publishing’s commercial/critical apparatus—everyone loves it, and your non-love is so unusual as to make you question your taste. In extreme cases, it may seem as though there’s a conspiracy afoot in the general culture to make you feel insane, a kind of cultural gaslighting. The hatred you develop for these books is different in character from mere non-enjoyment. It is rooted in a feeling of unfairness—not so much being left out, as being the clear-eyed pariah in a horror film, Steve McQueen in The Blob. It is a hatred that begins to feel personal, a resentment that extends from the text in question to the person responsible for the text. Several examples of books like this come to mind from recent years, but I will focus on one in particular, title and author redacted. This novel came highly recommended in print and online reviews, and by many of my friends and colleagues. I’ll credit my mother, an unusually wary reader, with some ambivalence, but by and large the response was a tidal wave of praise. It was variously hailed as one of the 10 best of the year, an utterly brilliant book, a landmark performance by [REDACTED]. I found it almost unreadable. The highly touted prose is a lush jumble of metaphors and registers without any controlling logic or taste. Each sentence is like a cordoned-off museum of its own aesthetic particulars, seemingly unrelated to the sentence coming before or after. A single paragraph might blithely mix lavish description, various unconnected similes, a flat and unfunny sex joke or two, and futurist Internet-speak, with no seeming concern as to how any of these elements work together. How, I wondered as I read, did this qualify for anyone as “sparkling prose?” For me, the reading experience was like being trapped in a mudslide, an avalanche of language, each additional word adding to the incoherence. The story is a series of lazy implausibilities cobbled together with all the deftness of a tailor wearing oven mitts. The characters are ludicrous, with ludicrous back stories and ludicrous arcs—they are ludicrous to an extent that feels intentional, satirical, except nothing is being discernibly satirized. Rather than a failed attempt at satire, the general silliness of the proceedings instead stems from what feels like authorial disengagement; the novel itself seems uninterested in why its characters do things and what their level of self-awareness is. They simply move where [REDACTED] needs them to and behave as the story dictates, however unconvincingly. The overall effect is a contempt for these people and their fictional reality. If I’d happened randomly upon the book, I would have simply stopped reading, but in the spirit of someone not getting a joke and asking the teller to repeat it over and over, I kept on, thinking at some point it would click. When it hadn’t halfway through, I finally stopped, feeling deceived. What trick of promotion—what cocktail party legerdemain—had managed to foist this nonsense upon the reading public, had somehow turned this gobbling turkey into a golden goose? That the book had been published at all was vexing enough—though not, seemingly, to the scores of critics and fellow authors who padded the proceedings with an introductory chapter of praise. I moved on to other, less maddening novels, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t seek out negative Amazon reviews for that paltriest comfort: the spectral two-star outrage of other bewildered readers. The reflexive cynical view—one that is easy to adopt in the thrall of book-hate—is that you have fallen victim to a corporate conspiracy. Publishing decides ahead of time a certain writer’s moment has come, the engines of commerce and publicity fire up, and the quality of the book in question is a distant secondary concern. While this may contain a kernel of truth, a simpler, more general explanation probably suffices. Namely, there is a great inexorable power in expectation—as social beings, we want to like things we’re supposed to like, and we’re uncomfortable standing at the platform, watching the bullet train of popular opinion shriek by. Human nature, of course, tends toward a herd instinct, but the inclination of readers—and this includes agents, editors, publicists, and critics—to enjoy a book derives mostly from good qualities: kindness and generosity and the urge to like, rather than dislike things. About a year later, I sat with friends on the second-floor porch of a rented vacation house in the mountains. We were enjoying a drink and the view of a late summer sunset over a canopy of trees just beginning to bruise with the colors of autumn. It was cool, birds flew to and fro, and from inside the house drifted music and the smell of roasting meat. The scene felt unimprovable, but then, from out of nowhere, this book came up in conversation and I discovered, to my surprise, two other readers who hated it. Oh, my friends! Oh, the joy! The sweet, delicious bliss of finding other readers who hate a book as much as you! Our individual aversions, long suppressed in unspoken self-doubt, were suddenly given full voice in an ecstasy of communal loathing. At last, we’d found each other. We leaned in with a conspiratorial air. “Godawful,” said my friend B. “I put it down after 50 pages, maybe 40,” said J. I said, “It’s completely ridiculous. I quit halfway, imagine reading the whole thing.” “I did,” said B. “I couldn’t believe I was reading the same book people gushed over all year. It was like I had to keep checking.” This went on too long, as this kind of thing typically does. Twenty, 30 minutes, maybe. We were like children gorging on an unattended cake, so desperate to get in every last piece of frosting and crumb that we misjudged our appetites. The initial greedy sugar rush of shared hatred went away and we crashed into a state of rueful circumspection. B said, “I mean, there’s no question [REDACTED] is talented.” “Yeah,” said J, “And I loved [REDACTED’S] first novel. I think it was part of my disappointment.” The conversation spiraled in once or twice more to how bad the novel was, but with ever-waning enthusiasm. As readers, I think, we share an understanding of what a niche audience we are, and what a niche enterprise writing a novel is. There’s a feeling—and perhaps this goes a way toward explaining why bad literary novels become fêted—that any nominally non-stupid book enjoying a moment of popularity is something to be celebrated. Disliking a popular literary novel—that blackest of black swans—is not like disliking a TV show everyone else thinks is great. Being the contrarian in the corner of the party who thinks Breaking Bad is overrated might not win you any friends, but being the reader who thinks a good book is overrated feels uncomfortably close to a betrayal. We settled down. I said, “Yeah, agreed. [REDACTED] really is an interesting writer. “I’ll read the next one,” said B. “Also,” J said, “I guess we could be wrong about this.” But that was a possibility too terrible to contemplate, and the conversation moved on to other things as we went inside for dinner. Image Credit: Flickr/K-Screen Shots.
“I came to realize that far more important to me than any plot or conventional sense was the sheer directionality I felt while reading prose, the texture of time as it passed, life’s white machine.” —Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station In the creative writing classes I teach, my students—most of them brand new at writing fiction—often go crazy writing plot. Their understanding of fiction, derived from a Stephenie Meyer/J.K. Rowling/Suzanne Collins-heavy reading background (not to mention 18 years of TV and movies), is that in fiction, stuff needs to happen. These early stories are breakneck affairs, full of marriages and divorces and car chases and gunplay and fistfights and murders and suicides and murder-suicides—sometimes spinning several into the same piece. They are B-movie scripts written as prose, mostly expository. Slow down, I advise, boringly. They listen, or pretend to listen, as I explain that literary fiction, the kind I am ostensibly being paid to instruct them how to write, is more character than plot. This is axiomatic: in literature, character is primary, always. Yes, things must happen, but they can be small things, incremental turns of the thousand gears that make up a narrative’s clockwork interior mechanism. And they should be things, ultimately, that derive from character. My students nod and proceed to write stories with gunfighting vampires—but introspective gunfighting vampires—and get an A-minus, probably. Lately, however, I’ve read a spate of critically lauded books published in the last few years that make me feel like one of my students. Where, I wonder, pausing halfway through, is the action? To be sure, there is still plenty of fiction being written with conventional plot, plenty of bestsellers with blood-soaked covers, but it has begun to seem to me that many of today’s best writers are writing fiction in which almost quite literally nothing happens. The prefatory Ben Lerner quote comes from his 2009 novel, the roman-a-clefish Leaving the Atocha Station. In it, Adam Gordon, a 20-something in Madrid on a Fulbright fellowship, wanders around the city smoking pot, thinking about poetry, writing very little of it himself, and freaking out when he isn’t sleeping. In other words, he is a 20-something poet abroad. What event there is, including the titular Madrid bombing, happens to him or near him, not because of him. Early on, for instance, he passively gloms onto a group of strangers in a bar, is befriended by a gregarious Madrileño and his sister, vomits from an excess of Mojitos, is driven home but can’t remember the address, is driven to a party, smokes too much pot while listening to a guitar player, pretends to cry while telling the sister his mother has died, and is comforted by her. I suppose there’s a bit of action there, in terms of his weaselly dissembling, but that’s about as far as it goes. The page turns, and we are on to the next day of espressos in the shower and lonely flaneuring around the Prado and Plaza del Sol and Gran Via. The point is repeatedly made that Adam cannot really speak Spanish, a narrative choice that, on its face, thematizes the problems Adam has with poetry and representation, but on a practical (read: plot) level also means that he cannot really do anything. His agency is limited by narrative design, clearing maximal novelistic space for his thought process, a process that includes lengthy ruminations on his lack of agency. Teju Cole’s Open City takes this mode a step further, almost entirely dispensing with conventional plot in favor of the narrator Julius’s peregrinations through New York. These “aimless wanderings” as he describes them in Chapter One, also describe the book’s narrative strategy, one in which the real-time event of Julius moving through the city is simply a pretext for him to think about the city, his life, the world, politics, as he says, “noticing himself noticing.” Flaneuring is, of course, nothing new in literary novels, nor, more generally is the phenomenon of the most important action occurring in thought. What, for example, is Madame Bovary besides the portrait of a woman noticing herself notice her real feelings about her life and her marriage? What seems different is the degree to which these books, and many similar others published in the last few years, feel little pressure to make anything happen or put their characters in any sort of plot-driven crucible. It would be negligent to discuss books lacking event without mentioning that 800-pound gorilla of strategic tedium, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. The Min Kamp series is an ode to inaction, a paean to plotlessness. The first section of Book I, approximately 200 pages, is committed to Karl Ove’s recollection of an adolescent New Year’s eve, during which he and a friend finagle a twelver of beer, hide it in the woods, and attend a classmate’s boring party. That’s it. Interwoven are lots of digressions about life, death, philosophy, and fatherhood—many of them interesting—but also interwoven are lots of other digressions into his daily existence, many of punishing mundanity (how many times, for example, are we treated to a scene of Knausgaard entering a gas station and buying a Coke?). Even the weightier second half of the book, given over to an account of the week between his father’s death and funeral, focuses mainly on all the stuff narrative is supposed to leave out: waiting on a flight, cleaning a bathroom, cleaning a kitchen, putting on a pair of pants—all flatly rendered in a po-faced Nordic mock-heroism. The static quality imparted in these books is not accidental, is, in fact, purposeful and, in certain senses, the point. You do not, in either reality or in Knausgaard, get the epiphany without the apophany. As a human body is mostly water, a human life is mostly waiting, mostly killing time between the main events. But fiction, as we have understood it for centuries, could be defined in character as “main events.” Traditionally, fiction seeks to strip out the tangential and irrelevant, the moments between moments, to create an accelerated version of reality in which relatively important things lead to other relatively important things—it isn’t that important things don’t happen in real life, it’s that it takes far too long to get from one to the next, and along the way any narrative outlines become lost in banality, what Lerner, cadging from John Ashbery, describes as “life’s white machine.” Why then, are some of the smartest and most celebrated writers in modern literature (I count among these, as well, Rachel Cusk, whose incomplete trilogy—Outline, Transit—is a study in passivity and seeming tangentiality; to some extent Elena Ferrante, whose Naples quartet accrues its violence and romance in endless reiterative, sedimentary layers; also, Sheila Heti, and an entire generation of creative non-fiction writers, a separate but closely related phenomenon)—telling stories that are largely banal, largely life’s white machine? One reason (as is, regrettably, so often the answer to this kind of rhetorical): the Internet. In moving our consumption of news and media from top-down to an a la carte model, the Internet has changed the way we are accustomed to receiving and disseminating information. Information of all variety spreads now across a series of nodes on a relatively flat plane of authority, and this change, though most frequently and obviously framed in terms of journalism, has also inevitably impacted the way we read and write novels. Put one way, William Shakespeare—or for that matter, Leo Tolstoy or Marilynne Robinson—is to Edward R. Murrow as Teju Cole is to your Twitter feed. This is a facile comparison, but it has some truth, I think. In an era of vertical information—roughly prehistory until 2005—novelists predictably wrote vertically. In the 19th century, a still-religious era with consolidated organs of journalism and publishing, authors wrote with epochal authority, a confidence in the universality of their observations and judgments: it is a truth universally acknowledged, all happy families are alike, etc. Even through the upheavals of the 20th century, there remained an essential confidence in the role of the author as someone bringing the news. Postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, and Don DeLillo may have doubted the institutions of their country, may have created new landscapes of American paranoia, but they had little paranoia or doubt with regard to their essential role as shapers and interpreters of a shared reality. As has been noted with tiresome frequency in the wake of the election, we now occupy individuated worlds of curated art, opinion, reality. There may still be objective truth, but it isn’t clear that we can reach consensus on what it is, and we accept as consensus fewer and fewer people as authorities. Of course, the word “authority” derives from the word “author,” and the act of writing itself is inherently an act of authority, of assuming the right to create and order words and thereby create sense. But there are degrees of order and sense in narrative, and writers like Lerner, Cole, Cusk, Knausgaard, and many others, it seems to me, are responding to this mood of uncertainty—if I may be grand, this weakening of cultural epistemic authority—by mitigating the authority they exert in their narratives; in general, by moving from the objective to the subjective. This manifests in certain ways—for one thing, in a preponderance of first person narrative. Third-person assumes the right to speak for, to inhabit, other characters than oneself, and to manipulate these characters, imbuing the text with a unitary consciousness; first-person, no matter the degree of artifice, implies a bounded consciousness, the disconnection between people. And disconnected first-person narratives—from blog posts to reality show confessional to the infantile tweets of our deranged president—are essentially the narratives of our time. It is not hard to mentally recast these writers as social media types: Knausgaard, the maximalist oversharer; Lerner, the pomo ironic; Cusk, the reticent philosopher; Heti, the more traditional diarist. (As an aside, it may to some extent subliminally flatter the reading public to imagine that a compilation of their status updates and thoughts on their life could—with a little editorial organization—comprise a publishable novel.) And this mitigated fictional authority also manifests in a tendency toward plotlessness and mundanity. The act of making up a story is an act of control, an exertion of order over entropy. The more carefully narrative is created, the more meticulously event is arranged for effect, the greater the implied presence of authorial control in the traditional sense. William Makepeace Thackeray, in Vanity Fair, for example, engages in a decades-long arrangement of characters’ lives, moving Becky Sharp and company around a diorama, into which he occasionally enters to comment: This is what happened to everyone, and why. In contrast, reproducing life “as it happens” in this type of quasi-memoiristic fiction, implies a position of authorial neutrality, with no presumption of ordering event for narrative effect or explanatory power: This is what happened to me, and who can say why? It may also be the case that we are, to an extent, culturally fatigued by plot. Five minutes of cable news provides sufficient event, enough dramatic twists and lurid intrigue, to sate anyone’s appetite for the fictional stand-in. Any adult with a job and smartphone is inundated with an unprecedented amount of media and advertising. Our attention is competed for nearly incessantly, with previous limits of mental privacy seemingly encroached on further every day—you cannot take a flight, ride in a cab, or gas up your car without a chyron scrolling beneath your weary eyes. Eventless fiction can, through this lens, be seen as a form of cultural protest, a refusal to vie for a reader’s scanty attention via the bright, shiny artifacts of plot. In terms of aesthetic experience, it is also a respite—I suspect many readers find themselves pleasantly lulled by the snowdrifts of Knausgaard’s youth, the quiet calm of the novel’s glacial inaction. During these “interesting times” (as the old saw would have it), an intelligent response may be to write less interesting fiction.
During this hoops-rich period, the frenetic Madness of March having transitioned into the more austere months-long slog of the NBA Playoffs, I found myself fruitlessly poking around for a good basketball novel. I’m both a writer and great fan of the game -- my podcast, Fan's Notes, pairs the discussion of a novel with a discussion of basketball, usually the NBA. My podcasting partner and I tend to find no shortage of cultural and metaphorical linkage between the two art forms, yet modern literary fiction seems to harbor no special love for this great game. Football has A Fan’s Notes, End Zone, The Throwback Special, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Baseball has The Natural, Shoeless Joe, Underworld, and more recently The Art of Fielding. For Christ’s sake, hockey yet has another Don DeLillo tome, the pseudonymously written Amazons. Where, I find myself wondering, is the great basketball novel? First of all, no, The Basketball Diaries is not a basketball novel. It is a memoir, and it is about heroin -- it features precious little actual basketball. John Updike's Rabbit and Richard Ford's Bascombe books both involve hoops to varying degrees, but not as a central concern or dramatic focus. Under the Frog, by Tibor Fischer, is a very good book about basketball players, but it concerns 1950s Hungary, the titular frog being the regime of Marshal Tito. What else is there? Walter Dean Myers wrote several young adult books that revolved around basketball; there’s also Sherman Alexie’s YA novel Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and the Blacktop series by my friend L. J. Alonge -- interestingly, most books about basketball that come to mind seem to be YA written by men of color, while Big Sports Lit is very, very white. There is not, as far as I can tell, a big work of literary fiction for adults that is “about” basketball, in the same sense that Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding is “about” baseball. Perhaps this has to do with the particular character of these sports. Baseball, with its mano-a-mano pitcher-hitter duels, is perfectly congenial to narrative -- is itself comprised of a series of mini-narratives involving protagonists and antagonists (one way or the other depending on your rooting interests). There is really no moment of solo heroism in any other major sport comparable to the walk-off home run (or strike out) to end a game; there is likewise no greater sporting scapegoat than Bill Buckner and his ilk. In less dramatic terms, a baseball game is comprised of hundreds of discrete individual plays: someone throws a ball, someone hits it, someone fields and throws it, and it is caught again by the first baseman for an out. This is how traditional narrative is structured, a series of explicable interactions between a cast of characters that mount in importance and conflict until a crucial, deciding act that resolves the plot. Even the structure of baseball’s gameplay is writerly, with its nine innings constituting nine tidy chapters inside the larger dramatic arc. Football, too, though tritely metaphorized as violent, armed combat -- marching up the field, a war of attrition, a massacre, etc. --is constituted by many clean moments of contest, various plot points interspersed between the interminable commercial breaks. American football is American in character, pairing a love of mayhem with an equal love of bureaucratic fussiness. The game’s horrifying ultraviolence is committed within the parameters of a rulebook thicker than a Cheesecake Factory menu, meted out in orderly skirmishes, and broken up by five minute replays to determine the spotting of the ball within a nanometer or two. We want war, but we want a safe war, a manageable war in which the actors stay within their prescribed roles -- in which no one, in effect, goes rogue (few things are more pleasurably disconcerting than a broken play and the ensuing spectacle of a four-hundred-pound lineman hurtling toward the end zone). Again, this is very compatible with traditional storytelling, placing maximum visceral conflict and chaos within neat scene and a hyperrationalized narrative structure. In contrast, the narrative possibilities of basketball seem somehow European in character, closer to futból than football (or as a British student of mine liked to call it, handegg). Inbounds are approximate, as are jump balls. Except in certain key situations, there are no replays and refereeing occurs on the fly. Mistakes are routinely made, lamented, forgotten. Superstar players -- the protagonists of the game, so to speak -- are coveted, but the play itself is supremely team-oriented. Unlike baseball and football, in which individual statistics are iron-clad and fetishized, basketball stats are the subject of endless arguments regarding context. It is curiously difficult to disentangle the individual moments that contribute to an orange ball falling into a hole. Yes, someone shoots it, and yes, often someone assists on the shot, but a hundred other smaller actions, essentially unquantifiable -- screens, shooting gravity, secondary assists, etc. -- go into it as well. And even the countable stats are the subject of debate. Scoring twenty-eight points in a game sounds good until you look at how they were scored, with what efficiency, and giving up how much on the defensive end. Quants -- that is, stat nerds -- regularly put forth the case that a player like Andrew Bogut, a low-scoring defensive bruiser who sets vicious picks, is as valuable than a shooting threat like Isaiah Thomas. There is no comparable ambivalence in the record books of, say, baseball: a homerun is a homerun is a homerun. All of which is to say that there is, inherent to basketball’s play, an indeterminacy that may not lend itself to conventional narrative. Moby-Dick versus Heart of Darkness, to throw a strange but perhaps productive analogy at the fridge (and thereby further mix metaphors), are like baseball versus basketball. One is about a majestic, doomed assertion of individual will; one is about ambiguous forces clashing in a mist of doubt and dread. Occasionally a basketball player comes along who is great enough to totally clarify the terms of the game: LeBron James, for example. But these players are surpassingly rare, generational. If the orderliness of baseball and football lends itself generally to narrative, it lends itself specifically to retrospective narrative. In much the same way that we often imagine our lives as a series of cruxes (and model that imagining in our fictions), a football game can be broken down into a series of botched or successful plays, good or bad calls. These sports are almost built to be post-mortemed, in their perfect state only when finished. It seems consonant, then, that big literary sports novels are typically about a character looking back at former greatness and lost innocence -- either personally or culturally, or both. And this type of literary sentimentality, in turn, pervades the cultures of football and baseball, which are forever backward-looking, enshrining and nostalgiazing moments, sometimes as they still happen. Memorable plays are almost immediately assigned names as historically pungent as World War II battles: “The Immaculate Reception,” “The Shot Heard Round the World,” “The Catch.” Even the bungled plays have immortal names: “The Fail Mary,” “The Butt Fumble.” There aren’t really similarly fetishized moments in basketball. Its fluid and complex play does not invite the same kind of nostalgic retrospection, and indeed, it is unsentimental about its history to a degree that routinely enrages former greats. Basketball could never serve as a good metaphor for America’s glorious past, or even its fallen present (football still serves admirably here: see Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) but it might be just the sport for a more skeptical and circumspect twenty-first century, an era when we need a literature of certainty less than ever.
John Cheever may be the most misunderstood and miscategorized important American author of the 20th century. On three separate recent occasions, and many more times over recent years, I have read articles/interviews that group him stylistically with Raymond Carver. This is mystifying: one would be hard-pressed to think of a body of work more antithetical to Carver’s spare, working-class realism than Cheever’s elegant, upper-class fabulism, where nymphs come to life and families vacation in Italian seaside villages. I can only guess this very bad comparison stems from people not actually having read Cheever, while knowing that 1) he and Carver were drinking buddies at Iowa, and 2) both of their names begin with C and end with VER. He is often also (mis)paired with Richard Yates, a more understandable comparison. Both men served in the Second World War and chronicled the roiling fault lines beneath the tranquility of New York’s far suburbs. Both men were impeccable stylists, although Yates tended toward a rhetorical stylishness powered by limpid prose, while Cheever was, like John Updike, an extravagant sensualist, both in subject matter and descriptive tendency. Both men enjoyed their greatest success with novels, while exerting their greatest artistic mastery in the short story form. But Yates’s world, however dated it may be in 2017, is the world we live in. Cheever’s is not our world and never was. I have no way to verify this, but I suspect in the '50s he was misread as well, though misread more widely. He seems to be writing about the Westchester suburbs -- Shady Lawn and Bullet Park, with their sloping lawns and cocktail parties populated by characters recognizable as ur-Don Drapers, ur-Roger Sterlings. Except as we read, the landscape distorts, the familiar becomes strange. Cheever’s stories are, to put it simply, strange, and in them, the Mad Men may really be mad. Take “The Swimmer,” his most famous and familiar. Neddy Merrill, half-cocked on gin and tonics during a restorative summer brunch at the house of some friends, decides to return home through several miles of Connecticut exurb by swimming the lengths of contiguous pools. Thus begins a minor odyssey during which we watch as Neddy makes his way, first in drunken delight, but then through rainstorms, colder weather, and the hostility of former friends, gradually growing old and infirm, finally arriving home to find it deserted. What is going on here? In fiction, when unreal elements appear, usually one of two things is happening. In the first case, the unreal actually is real. This describes much of genre fiction, in which the reader expects vampires and aliens to appear -- would, in fact, be disappointed if they didn’t. In literary fiction, too, the unreal may be introduced with a straight face, for effect. Magical realism depends on the introduction of a fantastic element into otherwise grim reality, for instance in Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” The appearance of an angel in a poor Colombian village creates a host of consequences, though a crucial difference between magical realism and, say, fantasy, is that in magical realism the narrative is primarily interested in the village, while in fantasy the author would focus primarily on the old man, his wings, how he got them, and what his home world is like. More typically, in literary fiction, the fantastic occurs as a manifestation of the main character’s disordered psychology. In close third person, the narrative is so intimately linked to a protagonist’s point of view that the world appears in subjective terms, and if the main character is sufficiently disoriented -- drunk, delusional, or simply experiencing very heightened emotion -- aspects of their immediate surroundings may become distorted in a way that reveals their mental state. In William Kennedy’s Ironweed, Francis Phelan, an itinerant, guilt-wracked alcoholic sees the ghosts of dead people he’s known, some of whom he killed. Although the narrative never states that they are apparitions deriving from his fear and shame, it doesn’t need to: we are able to read them as having a kind of immediate corporeality, at least to Francis, while still being utterly unreal, figments. So which of the two is happening in “The Swimmer?” Well, neither, really. On the one hand, it is impossible to read “The Swimmer” and think that the main events of the story are happening as described -- that, in the course of a single afternoon, a man ages 30 years while becoming increasing destitute and reviled -- unless we believe Neddy Merrill has entered some horrific parallel universe. On the other hand, it is equally impossible to read the events of the story as merely a manifestation of Neddy’s mental state. He’s been drinking as the story starts, but not that much. He is happy, overwhelmingly content in his life, really. Even if we were to read the story as a projection of Neddy’s subsumed life anxieties, it is impossible to imagine him projecting a vision of the world this entirely altered. Neddy finds himself in a third situation, a Cheeverian zone of strangeness between the actual and imagined, crucially of both and neither. Although Cheever makes frequent use of mythical tropes and creatures, it is not myth, not purely figurative. It is not magical realism because the strangeness is not intended to be taken literally -- strangeness in magical realism is almost always encountered and acknowledged by multiple characters, and is, in fact, a device meant to comment on the interlaced relationships that form a society. Strangeness in Cheever performs the opposite function: it is personal, particular, atomizing. In another well-known Cheever story, “The Enormous Radio,” a Manhattan couple buy a radio, and enjoy it until it begins picking up the conversations of neighbors throughout their building. The wife becomes obsessive, the husband guilt-ridden. It threatens to destroy their marriage and is returned. As with “The Swimmer” -- because the other elements in the story are so prosaic, so local and identifiable -- it is very hard to read the story as intending the reader to believe in a magical radio. But also like “The Swimmer,” the events of the story are too sharply defined and internally consistent to be written off as mistake or delusion. The closest available description is dreaming -- Cheever’s protagonists often feel as though they’ve slipped into a dream, their own or someone else’s. And yet this doesn’t seem exactly right, either. The fantastic does seem to be happening, but in an intensely subjective sense, as characters’ fears and desires warp the sturdy fabric of their previously staid realities. Cheever’s preferred locales -- Manhattan, Ossining, Italy -- deform like wax effigies, exposed to the heat of a character’s sudden lusts. This deformation is grotesque and startling in stories like “The Swimmer” and “The Enormous Radio,” and in less famous pieces like “The Chimera” and “Metamorphoses.” But many of Cheever’s less fantastic works operate in the same mode, if quieter. “The Country Husband” begins with Francis Weed nearly dying in a plane crash. He returns to Shady Hill to find everything subtly altered -- more vivid, shot through with erotic feeling, uncomfortably alive. This reads as standard narrative strangeness, i.e. a man has undergone trauma and found his perspective changed. But the next evening, Francis and his wife attend a neighborhood cocktail party, and we find ourselves in a zone of distorted reality. Francis suddenly recognizes the neighbors’ maid: when he was serving in France during the war, a French woman who’d been having relations with a German officer was forced to march naked through the town square. The maid is that woman. Normally, we would ascribe such an unlikelihood as a misperception on Francis’s part, but Francis asks after the maid and the hostess confirms she was hired from the same small town in Normandy -- Trénon -- where Francis had been stationed. Misperception is eliminated as an explanation -- it is, we are reassured, the same woman. But this seems wildly improbable, especially given that Francis has just had a paradigm-shifting experience, one that has tilted him toward the mysterious and sensual. A woman is sexually humiliated during the war; years later she reappears in a Westchester suburb, pouring brandy and coffee and serving as an emblem of the main character’s thwarted sexual energy, which later manifests itself in clichéd lust for the babysitter. While many writers could write the near-crash and subsequent vivification of their protagonist’s senses, it is uniquely Cheever to present the maid as a new fact of the landscape and leave the reader to deal with it. What is she doing there? She is real and she is impossible, or so improbable as to amount to the same. Again, like a heavy ball bearing rolling across a piece of tautened cloth, the weight of a protagonist’s anxious desire seems to have distorted the physical reality of his surroundings. In the end, Francis visits a psychiatrist and addresses himself to basement woodworking, a wholesome pastime that also sees him sequestered from the outside world -- not in self-protection, but rather, one senses, protecting Shady Hill from himself in a kind of erotic quarantine. The cumulative effect of these individual fantasias is, paradoxically, a strengthening of the apparatus of social realism in Cheever’s work. As in “The Chimera,” when a dream woman emerges from the woods surrounding the home of an unhappily married man, these events are oppositional in nature to the backdrop of reality and routine. The plots of many Cheever stories are, in effect, aberrations, and they do not last. The maid vanishes into the unnoticed shadows of suburban domestic life, and the radio is returned to the store. The fantastic in Cheever is intense, but it is not durable. In the end of most Cheever stories, the force of social expectation tends to smooth these abnormalities over, though it is not always clear how we’re meant to feel about this. At times we sense an opportunity lost; at times the story itself seems to breathe a sigh of relief as the normal rhythms of life reassert themselves. As a social critic, Cheever can be read, therefore, as simultaneously transgressive and conservative. On the one hand, the twin treadmills of suburban family life and postwar American consumerism stifle the human spirit. These visions represent a reaching beyond the borders of societal expectation for something rare and ineffable: sexual, religious, often both. The implication being that there is no adequate means for people to fulfill themselves within the boundaries of their normal life. Once a Cheever protagonist deviates, they deviate wholly, as in “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” in which Johnny Hake is fired and begins plundering the homes of his neighbors for cash. A corollary implication here would be how thin the line is between normal and the freakishly abnormal, how little occupiable space exists between the two. But this view of life, with the forces of madness held at bay only by an adherence to work and marriage is, itself, inherently conservative, in both its diagnosis of disease and prescription for cure. After all, given a binary choice between dull routine and utter chaos, most people will chose the former, and this mostly holds true in Cheever’s stories. Johnny Hake is wracked with guilt and, reinstalled in his previous position, returns the money he’s stolen. Francis Weed takes up penitent basement carpentry as a dull corrective while outside, dryads caper in the moonlit shadows of his garden. In a similar backyard, the Chimera, Olga, emerges a last time from the edge of darkened woods, staggering and bleeding, seemingly battered by her imaginer’s self-judgment. It is the tension between these two countervailing urges -- the urge for freedom and the urge for safety -- that lends Cheever’s work much of its enduring power. Though social norms have changed dramatically in the 50 years since his heyday, we still negotiate this axis of desire in our lives. We still veer wildly into chaos and overcorrect back into predictable routine. To survive the mundane crush, we daily create little fantasies that must be destroyed by nightfall. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I will propose two axioms here, the first completely obvious, the second hopefully less so. One: most writers have a zone of thematic interest they compulsively revisit in their work. Rare is the Flannery O’Connor story without a fraught parent-child relationship; few are the Raymond Carver stories without a bottle of gin lurking on the counter. Two: per Carver and O’Connor, a writer’s greatness tends to be proportionate to, or correlate with anyway, the strength and clarity of these fixations. Great writers have great subjects, and they return to them again and again, like a dog worrying daily over a buried bone. So it’s interesting when an important author purposefully writes against these tendencies, against themselves. In his recent Lincoln in the Bardo, for example, George Saunders abandons his familiar dystopian terrain, going back in time to achieve something artistically new. Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which I recently discussed on my podcast, Fan's Notes (shameless plug), strikes me similarly. Following the runaway success of The Adventures of Augie March, with its rollicking first-person narration and ambition of scope, Bellow released Seize the Day, a slim novella, and cramped in every sense. The third-person narration is straitjacketed, the setting is an old folks’ home, the action is mostly confined to a single, contentious meal between father and son, and the stakes hinge on $700 worth of lard futures. After Seize the Day, Bellow returned to large books like Henderson the Rain King and Herzog -- large in scope, large in voice. Largeness was Bellow’s aesthetic mode, outsized spiritual yearning his native thematic soil. But Seize the Day is a notable aberration, an effortful -- though somewhat clumsy and abortive -- stab at smallness and bathos. Regardless of how we evaluate this kind of book’s success, it is gratifying and noteworthy to see a artist pushing against his or her own inclinations and instincts. And so I found it, going through the work of Leonard Michaels to arrive at the Nachman Stories. The Nachman Stories, as they are informally known, are a cycle of seven pieces bound by a single protagonist, Raphael Nachman, a well-regarded mathematician at UCLA (Michaels himself taught at Berkeley for decades). These stories are terrific, wonderfully written, shot through with an enigmatic, elusive sense of mystery. And they are completely different than anything else Michaels wrote. Michaels’s great subject was the erotic and the borderlands it shares with other worldly conditions: love, hatred, friendship, confusion, depression, and, in particular, death. Going Places, his first collection, commences with two stories of graphic sexual content -- “Manikin,” in which a woman is raped and commits suicide, and the even more representative “City Boy.” Here, the protagonist, caught screwing his girlfriend on the living room floor of her parents’ Manhattan apartment, is banished from the house without clothes, runs to the subway entirely naked only to be denied entry, and upon return to the street is met by his girlfriend, who bears his clothes and the news that her father has suffered a heart attack. They return to the apartment, and celebrate the phone call reporting her father’s survival with another interlude on the floor. I Would Have Saved Them if I Could, Michaels’s second collection, features “Murderers,” perhaps his most well-known and anthologized story. In it, a group of teenage friends routinely masturbate on the sloping edge of a Brooklyn apartment roof while watching a young rabbi and his wife have sex across the street. One day, a member of the group slides down the roof, tearing his finger off in the process, and plummeting five stories. The naked rabbi screams out the window at them, calling them murderers -- a fusing of the carnal and mortal in one indelible moment. Michaels’s last story collection, A Girl with a Monkey, features a titular story that leads with the following sentence: “In the Spring of the year following his divorce, while traveling alone in Germany, Beard fell in love with a young prostitute named Inger and canceled his plans for further travel.” This strikes me as a characteristic Leonard Michaels sentence, packing loneliness and trauma into a rhetorical sardine tin with the frankly sexual. The story proceeds as you might imagine: sex, sex, regret, folly, sex, regret, sex. In 1997, six years before his death in 2003, Michaels wrote the first of the Nachman stories, entitled, simply, “Nachman.” In “Nachman,” Raphael Nachman has traveled to Poland for a mathematics conference, where he is informed by the American consul that he will be surveilled by the communist secret police. Nachman responds, “My field is mathematics. Nothing I do is secret, except insofar as it’s unintelligible.” Prodded further with a warning as to the “considerable allure” of Polish women, he elaborates: I’m not married. I have no secrets. I don’t gossip. I didn’t come to Cracow for romantic adventures. It’s arguable that I’m a freak. You’re wasting your time, Mr. Sullivan, unless you want to make me frightened and self-conscious. The story proceeds with Nachman touring Cracow’s former Jewish ghetto accompanied by a young female guide who may or may not be a government agent, one of Poland’s famously alluring women. He feels a vague attraction to her, though mainly to her stoic inscrutability, and the story ends with them drinking vodka in a café, Nachman thinking, “For an instant, [he] wished he could love Marie, feel what a man is supposed to feel for a woman, but not for the sake of ecstasy.” Nachman is an ascetic, and Michaels’s focus on such a character -- happy with his pencil and paper, his equations and conferences, and his solitude in a little house in Santa Monica -- is arresting. It’s as though Michaels, in order to thwart his habitual mode, had to create a character inoculated against desire. To return to our earlier examples, the equivalent would be a Flannery O’Connor protagonist on pleasant speaking terms with her mother, a Carver character who enjoys a single glass of crisp white wine before bedtime. What does it profit an author to create a character pitted by nature against its creator’s instincts? In Michaels’s case, backgrounding the erotic charge serves to foreground it -- Nachman’s sterile, calm existence is constantly being impinged on by the promise or threat of erotic life. The effect is something like a pristine operating room marked by a bare smudge of mud or a greasy handprint, and the plots of these stories are not unlike a contaminated OR being scrubbed down. “Of Mystery, There Is No End,” begins as Nachman accidently spies his best friend Norbert’s wife, Adele, kissing a man on the side of Santa Monica Boulevard. This coincidence throws his life into moral turmoil -- should he tell Norbert and how? And why does it bother him so? The simple answer seems to be that he has his own feelings for Adele, yet he never acts upon these feelings despite having ample opportunity. He is a man of instinctive restraint, a restraint signally opposed to Michaels’s frank explorations of the bedroom and its consequences. It is only in the last line of the story, chastely lying in bed, that Nachman allows himself to wonder if he is in love with her. The stifling of this erotic energy tends to position the Nachman Stories in the realm of the metaphysical. It’s as though, absent a release for the ambient sexuality in Michaels’ work, the narrative energy is funneled upward, into -- if not the spiritual -- the mystical. Nachman’s profession, mathematics, perfectly echoes this quality, in its intellectual self-denial, its abstraction in pursuit of equations that aspire to an almost numinous beauty, a beauty that, in turn, can take aesthetic shape in the real world. In “The Penultimate Conjecture,” Nachman visits a math conference featuring a mathematician named Linquist who claims to have solved a long-standing, famous problem reminiscent of Pierre de Fermat’s Last Theorem. Watching the man, Nachman senses the equations are wrong, and the story pivots on his internal struggle: should he speak up and ruin Linquist? He imagines himself and Linquist as medieval knights engaged in mortal combat. Cowering beneath Nachman’s sword, Linquist offers up his slave girl, and thus (as, again, the rumor of sex invades the story’s realm) does Nachman’s fugue end. The story cycle itself ends with “Cryptology,” in which Nachman has been invited by a shadowy corporation to New York for a cryptology conference. While in the city, he runs into a woman who seems to know him and invites him to dinner; he goes to her apartment only to find her having sex in the shower with her husband, and he flees in mortified dismay. “Cryptology” ends with Nachman in Washington Square Park, calming himself with a vision of home that serves as a perfect imagistic postscript for these stories: His office and his desk and the window that looked out on the shining Pacific. He’d never gone swimming in the prodigious, restless, teeming, alluring thing, but he loved the changing light on its surface and the sounds it made in the darkness. He didn’t yearn for its embrace. It is difficult to read these stories, written by a man in his 60s shortly before his death, and not read into them a certain clarity of purpose. Having produced decades of work marked by hectic energy, Michaels’s creation of Nachman seems an attempt to slow things down, to filter the intemperate world through a temperate soul. The sexual is still there in these stories, but it exists less as an act or an actor, and more as atmosphere -- background noise that, like the ocean crashing outside Nachman’s window, occasionally intensifies into something audible, becomes for a moment frighteningly present, then just as quickly again subsides. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
In a much-quoted Guardian interview, the British novelist Rachel Cusk said that following the publication of her divorce’s chronicle, Aftermath, she was unable to write memoir. Trying instead to write a novel she found herself, additionally, “embarrassed by fiction.” “Once you have suffered sufficiently,” she said, “the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.” Where does that leave a writer, when you can neither invent, nor tell the truth? Transit, along with its predecessor, Outline, seems to be an attempt to solve this problem -- and I suspect that whether or not a reader responds to this book ultimately depends on whether she finds Cusk’s solution successful. Transit pursues Outline’s unusual formal strategy, in which a cagey first-person narrator relates the stories of people she encounters during the novel’s plot, or “plot.” As with Outline, the story is, at best, wispy -- our interlocutor, Faye (like Cusk, a divorced writer), has returned to London and bought a run-down apartment in a fashionable neighborhood. She has two children, though we never meet them. They are installed with the former husband while she gets the flooring replaced and deals with unpleasant downstairs neighbors -- the central problem of the book. She also has a haircut, goes to a literary festival, tutors an annoying woman, teaches a class, and attends a dinner party. If this sounds slight, it is. The story serves only to bring the narrator into contact with other characters, all of whom have a story to tell, related in chunks of dialog and third-person exposition. The effect of these stories, essentially novelized dramatic monologues, is both interesting and tiresome. There is interest in what they replace, the silence they fill, as the narrator’s reticence communicates a traumatic past that is finally -- though incompletely -- revealed by novel’s end. There is also a voyeuristic interest in hearing these voices speak. We have no real reason to care, for instance, about the abusive youth of Julian, the voluble festival co-attendee, yet it is compelling, the same way overhearing a stranger talking on a flight or train ride can be compelling. But just as that chattering voice behind you can become dull, even maddening, so it sometimes is here with these reported anecdotes. Though Cusk has a good feel for how long to linger before moving on to the next talkative stranger, the book is necessarily hemmed in by its own rules. The book is told from her perspective, yet the narrator cannot or will not divulge too much of herself; the interesting walk-ons quickly walk off stage again, eliminating any conventional narrative drive. For me, the experience of reading Transit was largely the experience of wondering about these constraints -- mainly, what purpose do they serve? For one thing, perhaps, they allow Cusk to write quasi-memoir without any personal shame. By creating a narrator of such fuzzy reluctance, she offloads the confessionality onto these peripheral voices, emboldened to speak precisely by not bearing the burden of the novel’s focus. At the same time, by promoting these extras and crafting the book from their summarized stories, she dodges the embarrassing task of “having them do things.” In one representative section, the narrator, teaching a creative writing workshop, thinks while gazing out the window at a cloud: “I heard the students speaking and wondered how they could believe in human reality sufficiently to construct fantasies about it.” The workshop continues without her instruction, digressing from a student’s appreciation of his dog, a Saluki, to a several page biographical account of the breeder from whom he purchased his dog, to a history of Saluki breeding and dog training, culminating in an philosophical riff regarding “the unitary self being broken down, of consciousness not as an imprisonment in one’s perceptions, but rather as something more intimate and less divided, a universality that could come from shared experience at the highest level.” Here, our narrator turns away from the window and asks another question that occasions two pages of reported introspection. This is extraneity elevated to art, an aesthetic choice that strikes me as perverse in several senses. It is perverse in its effect, in the engrossing alienation it creates. It also seems grandly perverse for an author reportedly hostile to fiction, and the artificial demands of invention it imposes on writer and inflicts on reader, to create a book from marginal anecdotes. Read in this light, Transit can, at times, feel like an expression of this hostility, alerting the reader to the arbitrariness of story by telling dozens of arbitrary stories. It is also surprisingly effective. The accumulation of peripherality works as both a critique of narrative, and as narrative in its own right. Though perhaps narrative isn’t the word, exactly -- it’s more of a thematic scaffolding, as experienced by the exquisitely inert and receptive character at the center of the novel. Her receptiveness is sincere, and in the end, I don’t believe that Transit is fundamentally an exercise in formal cleverness. There is a generous spirit behind this storytelling mode, articulated elegantly in the last scene of the book: What mattered was to learn how to…see the forms and patterns in the things that happened, to study their truth. It was hard to do that while still believing in identity…just as it was hard to listen while you were talking. I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible. And through this listening, what a reader hears, in the end, is philosophy. I find these novels (a third in this loose trilogy is slated for release in 2018 or 2019) best appreciated as philosophical tracts, full of mini-disquisitions on subjects like representation, literature, authenticity, modernity, hate, anger, and love, among many others. By the end, my reader’s copy was full of little colored flags marking places where I’d admired the clarity of Cusk’s perceptions, trains of thought worked fully through in her smooth and stylish prose. Try this: “The idea -- of one’s own life as something that had already been dictated -- was strangely seductive, until you realized that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy.” Or: He had come to the conclusion…that up to a certain point his whole life had been driven by needing things rather than liking them, and that once he had started interrogating it on this basis, the whole thing had faltered and collapsed…He was used to being with [his wife]: once she was gone he was left with a need that could not satisfy itself because the cycle of repetition had been broken. But he had started to realise that what he called need was actually something else, was more a question of surfeit, of the desire to have something in limitless supply. And by its nature that thing would have to be relatively worthless, like [a] cheese sandwich, of which there was an infinite and easily accessible number. The peripheral narrative construction of Transit -- the feints and evasions and elisions -- is finally peripheral to the central pleasure: spending time with the book’s animating intelligence. The slipperiness of this intelligence -- the refusal to express itself in banalities like plot and conflict -- can be frustrating at times, but is also integral to its character. It is a perceptual mode that is necessarily elusive, and it builds something up into the air like a tower that is all crossbeams, a tree that is all branches.