“The consolation of acute bitterness is the biting retort.”—Hark
1.“Is it too soon?” It’s one of those recurring cultural questions that has lately been revived in the context of the #MeToo movement, regarding the matter of when, if ever, such high-profile sexual abusers as Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Mario Batali, Garrison Keillor, and Kevin Spacey might make their way back into the public sphere, or at least a paying job. Alpha males, however disgraced, get twitchy on the sidelines, and so, as James Wolcott put it in his Vanity Fair column on “The Return of the Scuzzies, “we hear the # MeToo Men tap on the microphone as they seek to reintroduce themselves.”
For a male fiction writer, a foray into this massively trip-wired territory might seem about as inviting as a several-mile stroll atop a third rail. Yet there, in the pages of the Nov. 19, 2018, issue of The New Yorker, was the fearless edgemeister Sam Lipsyte with “Show Recent Some Love,” surely the first male work of fiction to address, in no way obliquely, the issues raised by the movement. To do this in what we call “the current climate” was an act of perhaps foolhardy courage; to have pulled it off with as artful and well judged mixture of sensitivity and sharpness as Lipsyte did, is a high-wire achievement of no small dimension.
The story succeeds in “going there”
without inducing moral nausea because the ogre of the piece, the abusive and
predatory Mike Maltby, CEO of Mike Maltby Media Solutions (now renamed Haven
Media) is unambiguously presented as one of “history’s ceaseless cavalcade of
dickheads.” Left to navigate the treacherous cross-currents of Maltby’s ignominious
departure is Isaac, his one-time stepson, whom Maltby rescued from a life of
video gaming and Jagermeister shots by giving him a job as a copywriter. Not
unreasonably he fears for his position now, given the toxicity of his
association with Maltby; underneath Isaac’s vocal disgust he also experiences
involuntary and unnerving spasms of sympathy, as confused and anxious humans
In Lipsyte’s fiction it is the
wives who see right through the husbands, and Isaac gets pinned to the specimen
board of contemporary male fecklessness by his wife with this observation:
“Standing next to a villain and hoping people will notice the difference is not
the same as being a hero, Isaac.” Isaac stands in here for the legions of men trapped
in the queasy twilight zone between innocence and complicity. “And don’t be
certain they won’t come for you one of these days,” she adds with brutal
Since his 1999 debut story collection Venus Drive Sam Lipsyte has published four novels and two more collections that have established him as the premier anatomist of contemporary male malaise and sexual confusion. A skilled and consistently hilarious satirist with tummler-tight timing, he explores with merciless and lacerating precision the demoralized state of the urban man-boy and alterna-dad, marinated in gender guilt, trapped in the low-paying and uncertain jobs that are the portion these days of liberal arts majors, barely tolerated or peevishly despised by his spouse and children. Call him Lipsyte Man—a baffled and wounded specimen.
2.A North Jersey native and high school shot putter and teen literary phenom (“a little show pony writer”, in his words), Sam Lipsyte amusingly was named as a Presidential Scholar of the Arts by none other than Ronald Reagan; the award was given to him by the once famed virtuecrat William Bennett. A no doubt formative lesson in the uses of cognitive dissonance. He attended Brown in the late ’80s in its peak years as a powerhouse in semiotics, cultural studies, and advanced fiction, studying with such luminaries as Robert Coover and graduating in the same cohort as Rick Moody and Jeffrey Eugenides. Dispirited by the hegemony of literary theory over practice, however, he drifted into music for a time when he came back to New York, fronting a noise rock band called Dung Beetle and dutifully picking up the bad habits of dissipation the position called for.
Sam’s path back to literature took him through Gordon Lish’s fabled and/or notorious writing workshop, where the shameful and unsayable were quarried for the rawest of raw material. Lish was also fanatical on matters of style, and perhaps Sam’s chief takeaway from his time in Gordon’s boot camp was that every word of every sentence had to count. “There is no getting to the good part. It all has to be the good part,” he once approvingly quoted Lish.
Venus Drive, published in 2000 by the much-missed literary magazine and publisher Open City, strongly reflects that aesthetic. Its sentences display aphoristic economy and keenly calibrated rhythm, as in this specimen: “His eyes had the ebb of his liver in them and he bore the air of a man who looks right at you and only sees the last of himself.” Several of the stories draw on the druggy discontinuities, moral squalor and grim, bone-in-your-throat humor of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. One character does Keith Richards considerably better by shooting up his mother’s cremains. (What stage of grief is that anyway?) Another informs us with addled precision that “I wasn’t nodding, I was passing out.” William Burroughs’s algebra of need was clearly a familiar equation to the author.
Other stories engage with a broader consensus reality, specifically the emerging service economy that appears to be our portion until the robot overlords dispose of us. In “Probe to the Negative”—the very title can be taken as an ars poetica—a failed artist with dependency issues works as a phone marketer under the faux-helpful supervision of Frank the Fink.
“Maybe Frank was a decent guy once, but he’s management now … the higher you move up, the more of a tragedy you are,” the narrator mordantly observes. But as he also says, “We’re all cold callers now,” an epitaph that has ominous ring of truth.
“My Life, for Promotional Use Only”
opens with a perfect snapshot of the emerging dot-com economy:
The building where I work used to be a bank. Now it’s lots of little start-ups, private suites, outlaw architects, renegade CPA’s, club kids with three-picture deals. It’s very arty in the elevators. Everybody’s shaved and pierced in dainty places. They are lords of tiny telephones, keepers of dogs on battery-operated ropes.
The basis of
effective satire is simply close, cruel observation.
I heard Sam Lipsyte read one of his stories at an Open City event, a literary event for me of major proportions. So I made my predatory desires known and as a result became the editor of his first novel, The Subject Steve. The shock of recognition I experienced upon first reading it was electrifying; somehow this young writer managed to channel the irreverent and unruly reading of my formative years of the ’60s and had made that sensibility his own. It was the first of many times he has caused me to use my inhaler for an episode of laughter-induced asthma.
Black humor had emerged in the late ’50s as a literary mode and broader cultural style as a release valve for the stifling seriousness and repression of the decade and also an expression of paranoia and delayed trauma from the horrors of the late war and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Its strategies were the send-up, the put-on, the resigned shrug, the spasm of panic, the barely stifled scream, the bitter laugh, the taboo-busting saying of the Unsayable. It was born on whatever day the first lampshade joke was told. Its emergence was coterminous with and fueled by what Wallace Markfield, a now forgotten black humorist himself, called in 1965 “The Yiddishization of American Humor”—comedy that, drawing on the traditions of the Borscht Belt and the shetl, was” involuted, ironic, more parable than patter”—and infused with a distinctively Jewish fatalism.
The ur-black humorist was of course Joseph Heller and as I read The Subject Steve I could, I thought, detect his influence in every line. Begin with the book’s premise: The book’s narrator and antihero Steve is informed by two quack doctors that he is dying of a disease unquestionably fatal, yet with no discernible cause nor duration; they dub it Goldfarb-Blackstone Preparatory Extinction Syndrome. A terser name would of course be “Life.” Lipsyte elaborates this illogically logical Catch-22 premise with caustic wit and a verbal energy that recalls Stanley Elkin at his most manic. Savor the spritzing pungency and tart wordplay of this passage:
The bad news was bad. I was dying of something nobody had every died of before. I was dying of something absolutely, fantastically new. Strangely enough I was in fine fettle. My heart was strong and my lungs were clean. My vitals were vital. … My levels were good. My counts were good. All my numbers said my number wasn’t up.
Heller’s brilliantly morose novel of white collar angst, Something Happened, is also a presiding influence on this and subsequent novels by Lipsyte. Steve quits his indeterminate cube-based job, stating in his exit interview: “My work, albeit inane, jibed with the greater inanities required of us to maintain the fictions of our industry.” He fails to get much sympathy from either his divorced wife or disaffected daughter, and fleeing a media frenzy goes on an increasingly violent and saturnalian New Age odyssey in search of a cure or at least of modicum of certainty.
The Yiddish word for a hapless soul like Steve is “schlemiel,” a character without much agency and dignity, buffeted by domestic or historical forces far beyond his resistance. The schlemiel is a stock figure of black humor fiction—Yossarian, Billy Pilgrim, Benny Profane, just for starters—and can be traced as far back in American literature as Lemuel Pitkin, the All-American designated victim who gets literally taken apart in Nathanael West’s Depression-era demolishment of the Horatio Alger luck-and-pluck, A Cool Milllion. With The Subject Steve Lipsyte had revived a tradition of gleefully cynical disillusion that had largely faded from our increasingly earnest literary fiction.
Sadly, rather too much black humor of a distinctly unfunny sort attended the novel’s publication, as it was literally published on Sept. 11, 2001. Irony of any sort, however well achieved, was not in favor that grievous season; the reviews were complimentary enough but thin on the ground, and sales suffered accordingly. As a result Sam’s next novel, Home Land, was not offered on (with the keenest possible sadness) by me, and went on to garner an astounding 22 editorial rejections before being finally published as a Picador paperback original in 2004. That the novel quickly became the book to be reading on the L and M trains and with each passing year feels more and more like a masterpiece—to the point of having been selected by Christian Lorentzen in New York as one of the canonical works of fiction of the newish century, calling it “a Gen-X Notes from Underground—must prove something besides the need to pick your pub date carefully, but what? Perhaps that as the Iraq War and the broader war on terror were both clearly becoming clusterfucks of Vietnam-esque proportions, black humor Lipsyte-style acquired a new relevance and resonance that has only become stronger in the 15 disillusioning years since Home Land’s publication.
Among other things it has one of the best premises for a comic novel ever devised. Lewis Miner, aka “Teabag,” the member of the Eastern Valley High Class of ’89 who most conclusively has not panned out, pens a series of uproariously bitter letters to his Alumni Newsletter, bringing his cohort of bankers and brokers and doctors and state senators and “double major[s] in philosophy and aquatic life management” up to date on “the soft cold facts of me.” At first he “shudders” at the prospect of his successful classmates chortling at the particulars of his dismal tale, but quickly rethinks his phrasing: “Shudder, in fact, is not quite the word for the feeling. Feeling is not quite the word for the feeling. How’s bathing at knifepoint in the phlegm of the dead? Is that a feeling?”
Miner rents a dismal apartment in his hometown, attends the occasional “aphorism slam,” and ekes out a sort of living concocting fake anecdotes for a soft drink’s newsletter Fizz (while spending even more time trawling the net for lovelies in legwarmers). His dispatches at once satirize the nauseating smugness of most alumni updates and recount in granular detail the hell on earth that was most people’s experience of high school. The novel’s climax takes place at a predictably disastrous tenth anniversary “Togethering” reunion—“one big horrible flashback,” as these things tend to be.
Miner’s spew of snark is a beautiful thing to experience and he represents Lipsyte Man in his first full incarnation. Imagine—work with me on this—if Rodney Dangerfield had somehow managed to attend Oberlin or Hampshire College, but emerged with his sense of humor intact. Miner and his successors also partake a bit of W.C. Fields’s befuddled in-the-American-grain misanthropy and his sense of terminal male embattlement. These suckers are never going to get an even break.
Published in 2010 in the rump of the Great Recession, Sam’s next novel The Ask shifts the scene to an academic setting: the development office of an institution its denizens call the Mediocre University at New York, whose art program affords the marginally talented the opportunity to “take hard drugs in suitable company, draw from life on their laptops, do radical things with video cameras and caulk.” Milo Burke is a failed painter who works there none too effectively; as the book opens he has been cashiered for using an ill-advised epithet to an obnoxious coed whose ‘father had paid for our shitty observatory upstate.” Saddled with a wife and young child, his one route back to a paying job is if he can engineer a hefty give from his college friend Purdy, who ‘had been one of the first to predict that people only really wanted to be alone and scratching themselves and smelling their fingers and firing off sequences of virulent gibberish at other deliquescing life forms”—in other words a pioneering internet tycoon. (One of the many updated and flourishing Milo Minderbinder-types who populate Sam’s fiction.)
In Milo Burke, Sam Lipsyte perfected his portrayal of the sad sack contemporary male—a failure at work, a barely tolerated presence at home, overloaded with seemingly immortal student debt and untenable notions from his trendily overpriced liberal arts education. All that Lipsyte Man has to fight back with is his hefty reserved of disappointed spleen and a verbal facility that is a consistent delight to the reader if not to his interlocutors. The Ask is saturated with the feeling that the promise of American life has curdled and vanished, leaving us the task of managing our disappointments as best we can. Sam’s acute sense of the small-bore sorrows and indignities of contemporary domestic life sometimes puts me in mind of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet, his late, terminally disenchanted satire of two dimwitted clerks failing to escape their petit bourgeois fate. Wherever you go, there you are—unfortunately.
Eight years on, with his new novel Hark, Sam engages with the Age of Trump, aka the Big Con—a time when our disappointments are so acute that the need to believe on the part of a large percentage of the citizenry apparently cannot be extinguished by the preponderance of evidence or application of common sense.
The first thing to be said about the book is that Sam has never been sharper or funnier. It is my habit when reading a bound galley for review to dog ear pages where passages that made me laugh or that seem worth quoting strike me. My galley of Hark is so comprehensively dog eared that the whole thing resembles a dog’s ear. The second thing to be said is that Hark presents Sam’s most socially expansive portrait and diagnosis of American life, tinged with a slightly futuristic and dystopian vibe. It features the largest canvas and cast of characters of all his novels, and is the first of them to be written in the third person rather than the first, allowing access to a several competing and complimentary points of views and interior realities.
The Hark of the title is Hark Morner—his mother mistook the word in the Christmas carol for a name rather than an exhortation—who has accidentally drifted from stand-up into guru status when his routine on “Mental Archery” and its sharpening of “focus” proves congenial to corporate conventions and TED-type conclaves. Despite his lack of internal conviction he has attracted a circle of seekers who see in him whatever it is they seem to need. Chief among them is Kate Rumpler, an heiress and financial angel who is on her own private atonement tour, flying bone marrow from donors on flights around the country. Then there is the obligatory Lipsyte Man, Fraz Penig, an unemployed—actually never-employed—filmmaker who tutors the children of the one percent for a sort of living and produces video content for the Harkist website. He is married to Tovah Gold, a poet who earns the real paycheck in the family concocting bullshit-speak for something called the Blended Learning Enhancement Project”; both partners are “locked in a low-level quotidian apocalypse” and the marriage is mired on the shoals of her boredom and barely contained annoyance. (“The qualities in Fraz she once claimed to adore are not so adorable anymore.”)
Hark, a cipher to himself and an empty vessel similar to the figure of Chance in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, serves as a blank screen on which these and other characters project their ambitions and unreasonable hopes, family, work, sex, country and community having proven to be letdowns or outright delusions.
Lipstye’s satire in Hark has never been more cutting or timely. Meg, one of Hark’s acolytes, excitedly extols the virtues of something called Mercystream: “It’s amazing. Instead of letting refugees into the country, we can give them laptops and listen to their stories as they stream them from their camps. It’s all about empathy.” Fraz’s prematurely wised-up daughter Lisa declares, “School’s like a factory where they make these little cell phone accessories called people.” Musing on the root of her attraction to Hark, a character decides, “Your brain gets tired, brittle. It’s a bitch being attuned to the bleakness all the time. You crave a certain stupor, aka belief”—in itself a neat capsule statement of the novel’s controlling theme.
Lipsyte crams quite a lot of event into Hark’s 284 pages, much of it violent, some of tragic and fatal, and some of it even mystical and visionary, with a final chapter taking place in what is clearly the afterlife. To my mind Sam is attempting to craft a contemporary parable about the birth of religion, how faith, battered into near-extinction by the fraudulence and mendacity of the world, will batten on to the nearest plausible object. In this sense the novel is strikingly similar to Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists, the powerful, even overwhelming first novel of his teacher at Brown that similarly deals with the birth of a cult in the wake of death and disaster. There are also many parallels to be found in the way Nathanael West handles the volatile mixture of credulity and rage in the people he calls “the disappointed” in his indelible The Day of the Locust. In this as in so many other ways Sam Lipsyte is West’s truest successor among our living American novelists. I can offer no higher compliment.
3.Sam Lipsyte began writing in earnest in the early ’90s, just as the pundits were declaring the end of history and a global reign of liberal (or neoliberal) democracy and a goodies-producing market economy stretched into the foreseeable (hah) future. It was not perhaps the best psychic weather for a natural-born naysayer with a provocateur’s instinct and a shot putter’s explosive delivery. But what happened on 9/11 and the subsequent dot-com crash and then the Great Recession opened up a space in the culture for the sort of uncompromising and truth-telling satirist Sam was born to be and the mode of black humor most congenial to his extravagant gifts of language and imagination. It is a critical commonplace that the brain-numbing events of the Trump presidency have rendered satire powerless—a critique of fiction’s incapacity in the wake of American idiocy that dates back to Philip Roth’s in the early ’60s, a time of comparative legibility. Tell it to Aristophanes, Juvenal, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Gustave Flaubert, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht, the George Orwell of Animal Farm.
Tell it to Sam Lipstye. And then you’d better duck.
Image: Flickr/Pete Banks
In 1922, the same year the USSR entered the world, the poet Osip Mandelstam moved to Moscow, hoping to establish himself as a leading voice of the Socialist utopia he’d supported since his teens. Instead, he found himself an outcast. In early Soviet Moscow, writers as daringly erudite as Mandelstam were dismissed as the vestiges of a corrupt, decadent era. The Stalin regime would later invent a phrase for these types: “rootless cosmopolitans.”
The phrase was a dog whistle for “Jewish intellectuals,” a great many of whom—Mandelstam included—had supported the Bolshevik uprising in the hope of ending centuries of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, only to find themselves the national scapegoats once again. By 1933, Mandelstam’s disillusionment with the Soviet state was complete. He composed a piquant satirical poem, suggesting that Stalin (Mandelstam called him “the Kremlin mountaineer,” but everyone knew what that meant) had rendered all of Russia rootless:
We live without feeling the country beneath us,
our speech at ten paces inaudible,
and where there are enough for half a conversation
the name of the Kremlin mountaineer is dropped.
His thick fingers are fatty like worms,
but his words are as true as pound weights.
his cockroach whiskers laugh,
and the tops of his boots shine.
Around him a rabble of thick-skinned leaders,
he plays with the attentions of half-men.
Some whistle, some meow, some snivel,
but he just bangs and pokes […]
Inevitably, word got out, and by 1934, Mandelstam had been banned from every one of the USSR’s largest cities. Even after he’d relocated to the provincial town of Voronezh, the newspapers continued to call him a dangerous traitor. The secret police arrested him in 1938, one year into the Great Purge that would claim a million lives; that August, he was sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia. By December, he was dead.
In 1930, exactly halfway between the end and the beginning of the end, Mandelstam traveled to Armenia, at the time a semi-autonomous arm of the Soviet Union. The Stalin regime was then in the process of sending writers to freshly annexed parts of the country; it was Mandelstam’s job to “discover” the triumphs of Socialism out west, proving that the territory’s belonged under Moscow’s thumb.
The report he would complete in 1933—available in a beautiful new edition from Notting Hill, translation by Sidney Monas—ranks among the weirdest and most enchanting works of 20th-century Russian literature. In an era of crudely complaisant books that trumpeted their patriotism on every page, Journey to Armenia dared to be uncategorizable: a travel journal that barely mentions traveling, written in a form that isn’t quite prose or poetry, by an author who hasn’t quite made up his mind about Socialism’s promises. By emphasizing these ambiguities instead of drowning them in propaganda, Mandelstam captured the USSR at a crossroads in its grim history, when Stalin’s crimes were already clear enough to many but the utopianism of the 1910s hadn’t worn off completely—to put it another way, at the last time when something like Journey to Armenia could be written and published, albeit in a censored form.
There are times in the book where Mandelstam still sounds like the card-carrying Bolshevik he’d been 15 years earlier. Replace “Armenian” with “proletariat” in the following sentence and you could be reading the transcript of one of Lenin’s early speeches:
The Armenians’ fullness of life, their rough tenderness, their noble inclination for hard work, their inexplicable aversion to any kind of metaphysics, and their splendid intimacy with the world of real things—all this said to me: you’re awake, don’t be afraid of your own time, don’t be sly.
Journey to Armenia contains too many beautifully composed passages like this one for the sentiment to be altogether phony. Mandelstam didn’t only travel to Armenia because the Soviet Union forced him; he genuinely admired the land and he saw in its proud, strong people a glimmer of hope for international Socialism.
Yet he also fretted over his own hopefulness. Unlike many of the great travel writers he alludes to in his work—Goethe, Delacroix, Gauguin—Mandelstam had the presence of mind to wonder if he wasn’t simply seeing what he wanted to see from the USSR’s outer territories. “Am I really like the dreadful child,” he wrote in an early draft, “who turns in his hand a pocket mirror and directs into all the places he shouldn’t the dazzle from the sun?” When the book was published, his question was, naturally, cut.
At the end of 1930, on the long journey back to Moscow, Mandelstam composed a short cycle of poems about the country he’d just left. “Not ruins,” he wrote of Armenia, “no, but a cutting-down of a mighty circular wood / Anchor-like stubs of cut oak-trees of a wild and legendary Christianity.” The image of the tree’s rings is quintessential Mandelstam—in his poetry, he’s forever finding ways of translating time into matter and matter back into abstraction—but it also suggests why Armenia interested him. The country had been a province of the Roman Empire; later it became the first to adopt Christianity as the official religion. It was also, traditionally, the land where Jason and the Argonauts sailed to find the Golden Fleece, and where Noah’s Ark came its final resting place. Traveling through Armenia was for Mandelstam a way of slicing cleanly through history, revealing the layers of Greek, Roman, Hebraic, and Christian that together made up Western civilization.
As a young man, Mandelstam had learned to think of all civilization as a kind of cross-pollination process in which ideas were constantly mixing, shooting off in unforeseeable directions, adapting to new environments. His formative years mirrored this process. He was born in 1891 to Polish-Jewish parents; his father, a wealthy merchant, was able to purchase the right to move his family to Saint Petersburg, where only a handful of Jews were allowed to live. In 1911, Mandelstam renounced Judaism and converted to Methodism in order to enroll at the University of Saint Petersburg. In his rich, allusive poetry, the Old and New Testaments sit shoulder-to-shoulder with Homer and Ovid—like other Modernists, he seems to have decided early on that art was his true religion.
His sect is harder to define. For most of his adult life, Mandelstam identified with the Acmeist school of poetry, the tenets of which are almost comically obscure; the Mandelstam scholar Clarence Brown once wrote, “I doubt that the program of Acmeism, as originally formulated, could ever be arrived at purely … on the evidence of the poems alone.”
A typical way of defining Acmeism (Brown himself gives it a shot) is to contrast it with Symbolism, the dominant aesthetic mode in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century. Notable Symbolists, among them the writer Andrei Bely and the composer Alexander Scriabin, strove to unify all artistic disciplines: poetry, prose, music, and art were, by their reckoning, different dialects of a single human language. At one point, Bely and his peers theorized that all speech was descended from a set of phonemes with universal meanings—the phoneme “bl,” for example, signified tension, frustration, repression. (Bely later tipped his hat to this theory in his novel Petersburg, starring the tightly wound Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov.) Symbolist manifestos—and there are plenty—tend to strike a delightfully loopy note, blending mysticism with hard science.
Acmeists thought they were beyond all that nonsense. Their poetry was blunter, their imagery more concrete; as Brown put it, “Their strength … was to come from contact with the earth.” With the benefit of hindsight, however, the two schools, whose members thought they were diametrically opposed on every issue, look pretty near identical. Like the Symbolists, Mandelstam believed in the existence of many tiers of language: not just the semantic meaning of words but also a deeper, hidden set of meanings. The difference, of course, was that his beliefs were real and scientific and the Symbolists’ were fairytales.
At the core of Mandelstam’s interpretation of Acmeism was the idea that people of antiquity were highly aware of the world’s materiality, its sheer thingness—and were made so aware by the languages they spoke. Studying and imitating elaborate Homeric similes, then, wasn’t just an act of homage for Mandelstam but a way of reclaiming man’s connection with the world, which had been broken by the chaos of modern life. In a stanza from his first collection of poems, published in 1913, time itself is revealed to be a Classical literary device; to understand this literary device is to understand time in its full complexity:
This day yawns like a caesura: a lull
Beginning in the morning, difficult, going on and on:
The grazing one, the golden langor powerless
To call out of the reed the riches of one whole note.
When he wrote these lines, Mandelstam saw no disagreement between Acmeism and Socialism; there are even passages in his work when he suggests that one can’t survive without the other. To Mandelstam, the Socialist revolution was a way of lifting up the veil and seeing the world as it truly was, without the Marxian alienation brought on by class and mechanization. For this, one needed poetry—clear, concrete, and grounded in the traditions of antiquity. The tragedy was that the Soviet Union saw no need for Mandelstam.
It’s impossible to read Journey to Armenia without being struck by the scope—and the sometimes charming, sometimes frustrating eccentricity—of the author’s thinking. Dodgy-sounding scientific proofs are offered for strange aesthetic prejudices; semi-mystical interpretations of history are discussed as matter-of-factly as the multiplication table. Mandelstam is especially fond of Paul Signac’s impressionist color theories, with their proto-Symbolist union of aesthetics, biology, and psychology. Harder to follow is his rehearsal of Alexander Gurwitsch’s largely discredited theory of mitogenetic radiation—in essence, that cells grow in different ways because they’re exposed to different kinds of light. It’s easy to dismiss these passages as pseudoscientific, maybe too easy. At a glance, is mitogenesis any less plausible than special relativity, DNA replication, the X-ray?
In Armenia, Mandelstam thought he’d found the embodiment of his Hellenic theories. The common people, with their rough integrity, were utterly “of” the land as few moderns could be, and Mandelstam emphasizes the connection by likening their bodies to rust, brick, and clay. Allusions to the Armenian genocide of the previous decade (which the Soviet Union, to its credit, was one of the first nations to denounce) are rare in Journey to Armenia, but when they show up, Mandelstam always underscores the people’s indestructibility. He can’t visit an island covered in “yellowed bones” and “nameless graves” without mentioning that most of the inhabitants are healthy, energetic children with long lives ahead of them.
His belief in the superiority of the Armenians’ bodies was inseparable from his belief in the superiority of their language, which he never mastered but continued to study with an almost supernatural awe. “Speech is work,” he writes (not a bad way of summing up his poetry), and the Armenians’ speech was the noblest kind of work, the heartiest, the most resilient:
The Armenian language cannot be worn out; its boots are stone. Well, certainly, the thick-walled word, the layers of air in the semivowels. But is that all there is to its charm? No! Where does its traction come from? How to explain it? Make sense of it?
I felt the joy of pronouncing sounds forbidden to Russian lips, secret sounds, outcast, and perhaps on some deep level, shameful.
This passage (the first half, at least) fit nicely with Russia’s propaganda aims in the 1930s. A popular linguistic theory of the era, discussed at length in Journey to Armenia, held that the languages of the Caucasus—the region the Soviet Union had largely swallowed up, that is—shared a common proletarian heritage. The evidence for this was shoddy, to say the least, but Stalin was quick to ready upon any cultural bond between the Communist state and its surrounding territories, and he used the theory to flatter Armenia and Georgia into unification. Then in the 1950s, when the so-called Japhetic hypothesis was no longer of any use, he denounced it.
The difference between Mandelstam’s claims and those of the Soviet propaganda machine, of course, was that Mandelstam genuinely believed in the majesty of Armenia, a country that, much like his poetry, was infused with Greek, Roman, Christian, and Hebraic influences. A bigger difference is that Mandelstam was humble enough to admit that he might also be wrong—that he might be drawn to the novelty of Armenia simply because he’d been sick of Russia for most of the last decade. The “sounds forbidden to Russian lips” he mentions aren’t just the literal noises of the Armenian language; they also suggest the free, open-minded conversations Mandelstam could pursue only while he was outside of Moscow, unburdened by the fear of surveillance. And so he relished his months abroad—also, perhaps, because he sensed they’d be the last happy months of his life.
One reads Mandelstam on race, politics, aesthetics, knowing what happened to him and to the Soviet Union, with a mixture of wonder and dread. The word “science” appears again and again in his writings, smoothing out the facts, patching over wide gaps in logic. Much of his long essay on Dante, also included in the Notting Hill edition, seems to rest on the claim that the author of the Divina Commedia was a learned crystallographer of “monstrous exactitude.” Mandelstam seems to know of no higher compliment than that his idol was a great scientist:
Dante’s poetry partakes of all the forms of energy known to modern science.
The future of Dante criticism belongs to the natural sciences …
[Dante’s] “reflexology” of speech is astonishing—a science still not completely established …
The tic-like use of the word “science” where it didn’t belong was also (as George Orwell notes perceptively in Animal Farm) a mainstay of early Soviet rhetoric. This comparison isn’t as arbitrary as it may seem. The Bolshevik Revolution had the overwhelming support of Mandelstam and the rest of the Russian intelligentsia, which had been taught that the rise of the proletariat was as much of a certainty as the revolution of the Earth around the sun. It was, in no small part, this scientific certainty in decidedly non-scientific matters that led Mandelstam and his peers to back a group of thugs and con artists—the same smug confidence that led an entire generation of Western intellectuals to ignore genocide and mass starvation, because the workers’ revolution was finally here, and facts were stubborn things, anyway. Both Mandelstam’s prose and the rise of the Soviet Union were—though in vastly different ways—triumphs of pseudoscientific reasoning.
It’s easy to assume the best of writers because they so rarely have any real political power. We have no way of knowing what kind of societies would have emerged under the governance of George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, or W.B. Yeats, to name only three authors with political ambitions and questionable politics. It’s probably better that way. For all his political passion, however, Mandelstam seems to have had little interest in forcing his ideas upon others, aside from a few literary rivals (and this makes him very different from Shaw, Lawrence, or even Yeats). He had his beliefs—some of which look pretty foolish in hindsight—but he also understood that belief, like art, like civilization, existed in a constant state of evolution; “an event, a happening, an arrow.” Unlike the bulk of early Soviet intellectuals, he never let his utopianism to harden into dogma, and this is largely why he fell out of favor.
“Lamarck,” we’re told in Journey to Armenia, “fought sword in hand for the honor of living nature,” and it is significant that Mandelstam praises this half-forgotten French naturalist who believed that animals “chose” how to evolve over the millennia. While Stalinist officials offered crafty misreadings of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, with its emphasis on grand, overarching processes, Mandelstam celebrated the idea that individuals play a role in their own fate, that by consciously striving for improvement—a longer neck, a bigger brain, maybe even a better society—they can help themselves and pass the rewards on to their descendants. A pseudoscientific belief, to be sure, but also, at a time in Russian history when the individual was being rapidly obliterated, a heroic one.
He died at 47, but his wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, lived for another half-century. For much of that time, she had to travel across country to avoid arrest, never staying anywhere for more than a few weeks. Because she could never be sure that she’d be allowed to keep her own possessions, she devoted herself to memorizing thousands of lines of her late husband’s poetry; after the death of Stalin, she came out of hiding and set to work transcribing and publishing them. By the 1970s, Osip Mandelstam was beginning to be acknowledged as one of the 20th century’s great writers. He would have appreciated that, in order for his reputation to survive, his wife had to live after the fashion of that great, possessionless wanderer of the ancient world: Homer.
The archives of the British Library have been digitized, and among many other gems is this rejection of George Orwell’s Animal Farm by none other than T.S. Eliot, himself: “And after all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm – in fact, there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.”
A 2002 essay by the academic Andreas Huyssen outlines the critical problem that some people “still want to force us to choose between high and low, or as Susan Sontag put it in the 1960s, between Dostoyevsky and The Doors”. Postmodernism, he argues, has lost its critical edge, hybridization — between lofty and populist, bridging nations’ cultures — has become the norm.
Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt has loaded up his car and is headed to the heart of this storm. His first book, Ablutions, brought the folk mythic of Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson to the delusions of a degenerating alcoholic working in a bar. His follow up Western, The Sisters Brothers, blended the Coen brothers with Frank Miller. His latest, Undermajordomo Minor, is billed as a fairy tale but has cited influences as diverse as Robert Coover, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and C.F., a musician-cum-zine author published by late Brooklyn publisher PictureBox Inc. So is it fair to consider him in terms of a binary between high and low? Is his work entertainment, something to get us off? Or is it original, beautiful, communicating deep ideas? Do we need to pick?
Undermajordomo Minor, on the face of it, is straightforward enough, a plot plucking memories from our childhood reading: Lucien Minor, a 17-year-old miserabilist, can’t quite connect with the world. He leaves home to escape boredom by working at a distant castle for a mysterious Baron, meets various colorful characters, falls in love, has some rivalry for his paramour, and seeks closure.
All this is as seen through deWitt’s distinctive lens, and from the opening pages Minor is “mourning the fact that there was nothing much to mourn at all,” because he’d never had a close relationship to his parents. He is detached, arguably depressed — what might kindly be described as “melancholic,” if one is to romanticize low mood — and can’t seem to feel at home anywhere.
In describing this, deWitt deploys a similar narrative structure to that of “intermissions” in The Sisters Brothers — set piece subplots, teed up with filmic titles. There’s a scene where Minor encounters two thieves, Memel and Mewe, on his train out of town; the arrival of an elusive Baroness, with whom his feral boss is having a volatile relationship; his own travails with a love interest and her alpha-male soldiering spouse; a failed murder attempt by Minor ending with a digression that sees him fall into an abstract Very Large Hole in the ground.
The prose is at points sparse — declarative and distant — like a bedtime story, at others full of naïve grandiloquence. Upon meeting a group of soldiers: “Lucy was afraid of these men, naturally, for they carried themselves so grimly, and it seemed they intended to set upon him and for all he knew bring him to harm.”
A plus for pace, but locations — Minor’s hometown Bury, the castle where he works, the village it overlooks – are not photorealistic, delicately picked out still-life, but more like watercolor. A settlement is “collected, like leavings, debris;” the Castle Von Aux comprises “a broad, crenellated outer curtain wall and two conical towers…built at the sloping base of a mountain range, standing grey-black against the snow.”
In opposition to that, characters are larger than life, almost Disneyish. Majordomo Mr. Olderglough, to whom Minor reports, is “an elegantly skeletal man of sixty…his right arm hung in a sling, his fingers folded talon-like, nails blackened, knuckles blemished with scabs and blue-yellow bruising.” An obnoxious pair of visiting aristocrats are variously “slick, blubbery” and “crimson, panting” — images straight out of Roald Dahl.
The result lends portent, aids exaggeration and farce. Textually, the obvious comparisons are from European fiction skirting the boundary between realism and fabulism — The Brothers Grimm, Stefan Zweig, George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Color is symbolically used to denote sadness, particularly blue: the smoke around a train, Minor as “The Blue Boy.” The allusions here are mythic — Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Gothic literature. And there is still the odd, comedic, deWitt flourish: the straight-faced incongruity of Lucy endeavoring to smoke a pipe is set-up, and put away, clinically. “Feinting, he removed his pipe and pointed its stem at the storm clouds, now tabled across the valley,” beggars incredulity, and laughter.
On a larger scale, because of the abstracted reality, we can choose to read the narrative as entertainment, or as allegory. When Minor falls into the Very Large Hole it might be a chance for him to meet two men who’ve also paddled into tough romantic straits, have failed to escape, and lack the chutzpah of a younger man. It’s also no great shakes to see the hole in terms of mood — an obvious link would be to Shane Jones’s 2010 book Light Boxes, which drew criticism for its alleged solipsism and for being too twee, despite being an innovative exploration of seasonal depression.
Unlike that book, deWitt doesn’t fall into any metafictional trap–– though the Baroness does at one point slam a book shut, “resentful at the promise of an entertainment unfulfilled” — but he does put clear water between himself and his previous novels.
It’s easy to parse his gradual movement from a linear narrative to something marginally more picaresque, retaining the sharp, script-like precision of The Sisters Brothers. Along with shortening sentences, his prose is gradually becoming more straightforward, and less gnomic — veering from the jabbing finger of second person, to the personalized first, to more conventional third.
Any arbitrarily conceived progression aside, there are various familiarities. Plot points of dissatisfaction and emancipation from a troublesome job have cropped up in all his books. They also all have a single scene of orgiastic hedonism featuring the debasement of women. Minor’s name is shortened to Lucy, a glancing allusion to the feminizing, arguably softening effect of the naming of Eli and Charlie Sisters. DeWitt is unafraid to meddle in effluvia — the blood, cocaine, and sex in Ablutions; the B-movie violence of The Sisters Brothers, the surreal perversions in one scene here — and then there is the obvious symbolism, an atmosphere of pathological melancholy surrounding failing relationships and unrequited love, particularly from a male viewpoint.
So returning to the question with which we opened, are we left entertained, or something else? Or both? If we are to measure amusement in smiles, and pages turned per hour, then this succeeds on that front. DeWitt has solved the hard problem of chasing a much-loved novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize with something just as engaging, and in places, funny. The verse-like coda is sweetness, in extremis: Minor’s heart described as a “church of his own choosing, and the lights came through the colorful windows.” We are distracted — depth is hinted at — we move on.
And that’s where one might leave it, if it weren’t that the author is so clearly trying for something more, a desire to impress on us that with beauty and knowledge comes only sadness. In his acknowledgements, deWitt lists 19 authors, 15 of them men, whose work he considered when writing the book. And that’s when the trouble starts. To begin, that’s because it is hard for Undermajordomo Minor, indeed, any book to stand up alongside I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal, one of the authors cited. There are obvious similarities: both books consider young men’s early dreams colliding with disenchantment. In Hrabal’s novel, a once zealous character — who worked in European hotels — ends life in a sustained period of Schopenhauerian asceticism and abnegation of will. Minor, meanwhile, just doesn’t seem to learn. The list goes on: Dennis Cooper’s George Miles Cycle is arguably much more brave, shocking, and unrelenting in its descriptions of violence, drugs, and sex. Coover knowingly subverts fairy tales, but more rigorously deconstructs his narratives. Sammy Harkham, like C.F., another comics writer, is immensely innovative with his narrative structure and unforgiving in the density of his ideas. DeWitt also cites a fair smattering of existentialist writers — Thomas Bernhard, Knut Hamsun – whose straight talking introspection can easily be seen here.
All that aside, it’s obvious that listing these writers sets deWitt up with an insurmountable task, and every author seeks inspiration from a diverse array of sources. But if we return to Huyssen, that deWitt has chosen to decontextualize such a large palette of writers from at least 10 different countries — influenced by their tone, settings, structural interests, imagery — seems a very contemporary phenomenon. Curiously, the field he describes in his acknowledgements is dominated by literary fiction — including Robert Walser, who once worked as a servant in a castle — and not genre writers, whose writing this book overwhelmingly resembles.
With The Sisters Brothers, deWitt was casting his line into a pool arguably underpopulated by mainstream fiction. With Undermajordomo Minor, he is fishing in much more crowded water. On the one hand, this book is extremely entertaining, but he’s purposefully undermined the neatness of Zweig or Dahl to deprive us of the greatest “satisfaction,” if we are to use the words of his own character. On the other hand, if deWitt wants to make great art, he’s got to push as hard as the people he is drawing upon. The profundity he achieved in his debut, and now craves again, may still be another book or two away.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike get inspired by Harper Lee’s new Go Kill a Watchbird, and talk about sequels to classic books they’d like to discover.
Discussed in this episode: Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, racist Atticus Finch, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Christmas Story by Charles Dickens, Scarface (dir. Brian De Palma), Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Family Stone (dir. Thomas Bezucha), Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Animal Farm by George Orwell, middle school plays, old-timey editorial cartoons, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett O’Hara’s nonsense, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield’s stupid cap, selling out, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the forgotten students of Hogwarts, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jean Valjean.
Cut for time from this episode but likely to be included as an extra on the eventual DVD: 2 Naked 2 Dead by Norman Mailer.
It is a truth universally acknowledged (and recently addressed in Barclay Bram Shoekmaker’s Millions review of Mo Yan’s Frog) that literary translation is an imperfect art, and this list of mistranslated “literary moments” only offers more evidence for the claim. But for every serious blunder there’s also a truly ridiculous one (or more). For example, the French translated the title of Animal Farm as Animals Everywhere!, which sounds a lot like a charming children’s book and not at all like Orwell.
In 1943, Dwight MacDonald, one of the co-founders of the literary journal Partisan Review, lost an internal power struggle over its editorial direction and left to found a new magazine, Politics, that better suited his vision. The reasons for MacDonald’s split with the other PR founders, Phillip Rahv and William Phillips, are complex and have been examined at length elsewhere, but in principle they involved both a difference of opinion regarding the participation of the United States in the war against Germany and Japan (which MacDonald opposed) and the question of whether Partisan Review would be principally a journal of leftist politics (as MacDonald wished) or one equally committed to independent-minded literary and cultural criticism. After MacDonald’s departure, Partisan Review did not abandon politics, but it remained known as a journal open to distinguished work even from those who differed from the editors ideologically. Before finally closing in 2003, PR would go on to publish criticism — by fellow travelers (Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin) and ideological enemies (Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren) alike — that set a standard that other journals of opinion still strive to match.
Ancient squabbles at a now-defunct literary magazine, involving a good deal of now dated Marxist cant, are not inherently very interesting. But the Partisan Review, both in its high editorial standards and in its struggles to resolve inherent tensions between the domains of politics and art, continues to be a point of reference in our literary culture. The founders of n + 1 have cited PR as an example, even as they have produced a journal with a hipper, more contemporary voice; several of the core PR critics, including Lionel Trilling, remain culture heroes; and New York Times critic A.O. Scott maintains what amounts almost to an obsession with PR, citing its writers in his work, contributing an admiring introduction to a collection of essays by another PR stalwart, Mary McCarthy, and undertaking a book project surveying the American novel since World War II that seems consciously to invoke Kazin’s landmark study of the preceding period, On Native Grounds. It is Scott’s fascination with PR and its fusion of ideology and culture that I wish to discuss here, along with the broader question of how the contemporary American novel ought to engage with politics.
Here is Scott in a recent Times essay:
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for The Grapes of Wrath. Or maybe A Raisin in the Sun, or Death of a Salesman, a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad — something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us…Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth.
This is a stirring statement of purpose for the arts, but one that should be parsed carefully. In this and a series of previous essays published over the last several years, Scott makes two related claims: (1) that our culture no longer makes a strong demand upon us morally or intellectually, but instead treats us simply as consumers whose expectations must be met; and (2) that a false dichotomy has arisen between our political and cultural lives, such that artists have abdicated their responsibility to examine the ideological structures that we are governed by and have instead been content to describe the compensatory mechanisms we have evolved to survive within them. What Scott wants is a more serious, more politically engaged culture, one more alive with disagreement and dissent.
Some of what Scott says, particularly on the subject of politics and the American novel, seems to me a little “pushed,” in the sense that he risks asking the wrong things of writers, or perhaps weights engagement on his terms too heavily, and imputes a didactic purpose to the novel as a genre that it cannot support. My purpose here is not to quarrel with Scott, however, but to explore some of the tensions that inhere in the novel of politics, and relatedly, to assess the extent to which the critical attitude that Scott has embraced remains salient in an era of very different cultural values. The sense of crisis to which Scott has addressed himself is no doubt real. Suddenly, everything seems to be up for grabs again in our political life. It is natural to hope, even if that hope is somewhat against the weight of experience, that artists can light the path ahead.
The Partisan Review sensibility was in part a product of historical and biographical forces, to wit, the world of Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to New York in massive numbers over several decades beginning in the 1880s. Irving Howe, Phillip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, and Leslie Fiedler all belonged to this world; Howe memorialized it in World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made:
For about thirty or forty years, a mere moment in history, the immigrant Jews were able to sustain a coherent and self-sufficient culture. It was different from the one they had left behind, despite major links of continuity, and it struggled fiercely to keep itself different from the one they found in America, despite the pressures for assimilation. Between what they had brought and half preserved from the old world and what they were taking from the new, the immigrant Jews established a tense balance, an interval of equilibrium.
Scott is an inheritor off this culture through his mother, the historian Joan Wallach Scott, who grew up in a Brooklyn Jewish family, moved away from home, got a Ph.D., married a Protestant, and had little Tony. Other forces have acted upon him, too, of course: one could just as easily say that he is a product of the academy (his father, Donald Scott, teaches at CUNY); of Harvard (Class of ’88); or of the newspapers where he has worked for 20 years. It might seem odd or even de trop to claim that there is a Jewish intellectual style and that Scott works within it, except that he makes little pretense otherwise; his work is studded with references to the PR critics (not all of them Jews, of course), men and women all now dead and to some extent forgotten — so much so, in fact, that what at first looks like interest begins gradually to seem more like obsession. While the PR critics are not Scott’s only touchstones, they seem to embody for him the highest possibilities of the critical form.
There are good reasons to think that the PR intellectual style is outdated. First, because of the collective experience of the Holocaust, the Cold War, and McCarthyism — the extraordinary cataclysm of the middle of the 20th century, in which ideology threatened not just to eclipse civilization but to extinguish it — the PR critics did not draw sharp distinctions between politics and culture. For them, all cultural products referred to and derived from a system of relations that they saw in Marxist, philosophically materialist terms. Today, by contrast, we tend to regard culture as a semi-autonomous sphere, independent and self-justifying. Second, the PR critics wished above all to be thought of as serious, and their conception of seriousness, which they linked to cultural traditions inherited from Europe, is likely to seem anachronistic to us today; American culture has lost its last vestiges of self-doubt and become, at least in commercial terms, a dominant brand. Few critics today, even very cosmopolitan ones, think of Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as salient points of reference when they talk about the form and potential of the novel. Third, the PR critics wrote in a mandarin style of intellectual assertion that hardly seems possible in an age in which critical authority is on the run in all spheres of intellectual life. We no longer assume that a Columbia professor like Trilling has the right to tell us how to read or what belongs in the canon.
On the other hand, there is a good deal that remains admirable and relevant in the PR style, despite its occasionally risible self-importance. An air of political crisis seems to have returned to American life, creating space for both reasoned dissent and all manner of charlatanism; there exists a new sense of possibility that is both exciting and terrifying. If that is so, then a somewhat artificial distinction between political and cultural life begins to look not just specious but irresponsible; we need our artists to remind us of who we are. And while the culture continues to become flatter, there is also a countercurrent of interest in what is authentic and best in the culture rather than what is given to us by media monopolists. The flattening of our culture should not be confused with its democratization, however determined Apple might be in its advertising campaigns to conflate the two. To dismantle or, at least, to interrogate structures of political and cultural power begins to look like pretty urgent work. At the end of this chain of propositions, Trilling, Fiedler, and especially Howe wait for us. Perhaps Scott chose his heroes better than one might have thought.
Scott’s admiration for the PR critics also rests on values more narrowly literary. There were several gifted stylists in the PR crowd: Howe, who delivered opinions of undisguised vehemence in long sentences gentle on the inward ear; Trilling, Jamesian, diffident, balancing his long, erudite essays on a single concept or turn of phrase; MacDonald, whose essay “Masscult and Midpoint” finds a perfect equipoise between an unrepentant cultural snobbery and a sighing regret that such thoughts must be expressed. It is this fusion of political and aesthetic values that seems to interest Scott, the dream of a critical mind both free and disciplined. Scott is first and last a writer, a man who wants to get himself fully expressed on the page. His prose style is not flashy, and it takes sustained exposure to his work to realize that he is a very good writer indeed, one who has resisted the slackness that can creep in when you have multiple pieces due week after week, the diminished expectations of daily journalism. While Scott colors between the lines, rarely reaching for heightened rhetoric or memorable coinage, his steadily intelligent prose constitutes a quieter kind of intellectual heroism. He is less interested in providing that he is right about a particular work than in defending his aesthetic values or, more fundamentally, the importance of establishing aesthetic values and judging works of art, even popular art, by those standards.
American literature has always been more wary of ideology than its European counterpart. Here we take our politics light, and with a good deal of artificial sweetener. Leslie Fiedler (another PR contributor) said that all American novelists were stunted, unable to accept their role in the culture at large, returning always to the intense, private, unmediated experiences of youth. Fiedler intended this as an indictment, at least in part, but the innocence of the American writer may not be entirely a bad thing. Europe in the 20th century suffered so grievously from excessive ideological passion, both in its politics and in its letters (Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Paul de Man, Günter Grass), as to constitute a potent negative example.
Today we are inclined to think that a novelist whose primary purpose is narrowly didactic is likely to produce work that is date-stamped; but there are counter-examples strong enough to give one pause: Charles Dickens often wrote with a political purpose; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn attacked the Soviet state with The Gulag Archipelago; and then there is the irrefutable case of George Orwell. Of course, the American novelist may have had less need to confront the state than her counterparts in other places and times, since the twin rhetorics of liberty and equality have always been part of our official discourse; an artist-provacateur like Ai Weiwei is a necessary figure in China — a sort of dramatist of state repression — but perhaps less so in the West. It may be the case, however, that the relation of the artist to the state has changed in America in the last decade with the gross expansion of the national security apparatus, which along with rapid technological change has shrunk the once generous zone of personal autonomy that we came to take for granted. If that is true, it may be time for certain creative work that cuts a little closer to the bone.
A criticism that attempts to take account of politics runs into an immediate paradox, which is that those novels that deal least directly with ideology tend to be the ones in which the strongest ideological assumptions are made; the preconditions of social life are so self-evident to their authors that they need not be stated. A Jane Austen novel is strongly concerned with domestic life and family relations, almost to the complete exclusion of ideological questions; and yet without the stable substructures of marriage and property on which it depends for both its plot and its social texture, it would falter on the first page. Unlike the plastic arts, the novel can never be wholly apolitical, given that even in its most experimental forms it seeks to refer to the world. Still, it would be a crude critic indeed who opted to “take on” the assumptions of these novels; he would almost be making a category error. Austen is a writer for all time; that she required a certain stability of society and manners has not proved disqualifying. Indeed, Henry James thought of this stability as virtually a precondition of the novel, or at least of his own. The novelist must sometimes have the freedom merely to take the world as he finds it.
The idea of the political novel is also somewhat in tension with the generative process that leads to the impulse to write. The political imagination seeks to solve problems, even to extinguish them. The violent political imagination seeks to extinguish false consciousness, which can only end in the extinguishing of human beings. The literary imagination is content to present problems, of whatever sort, taking the world as it finds it; in that sense it is conservative, even as it attempts the radical gesture of creation ex nihilo. The novel classically begins in the writer’s mind with a character or a situation, not with a political structure, a legislative event, a party congress. “An idealistic young doctor and poet seeks stability, meaning, and honor as his country descends into violence” is at least potentially Doctor Zhivago; “a series of events in imperial Russia leads to the demise of the Romanov dynasty and the creation of the Soviet Union” is something else entirely. Of course, a novel that begins with character may effloresce to become the story of a revolution, as with Zhivago. But what distinguishes the novel from the forms with which it has vied for space (biographies, narrative histories, religious texts) is its concern with private experience and, beginning with the modernists, interiority. The inner life observed is the lodestar of the modern novel: Mrs. Dalloway in her kitchen. The political novel, by contrast, seeks to link the individual’s destiny to the mass society that conditions him and against which he struggles for autonomy.
However much faith we are inclined to place in our artists, we should acknowledge that the crisis that Scott asks art to explain, or at least to narrate, was (among other things) an event in economic history, arising out of very deliberate and identifiable policy choices made over the course of several decades by intelligent but apparently rather blinkered individuals. Sustained engagement with that history actually is important to understanding what happened. A novelist may be able to “tell the truth” about the sense of dislocation and free-floating anxiety felt by a laid off mortgage banker; or about how a family’s life might unravel after the loss of their home; but she probably cannot explain the chain of causation that started with the invention of securitization and led to the jumbo mortgages that led to the building of that house that the family paid too much for, struggled to keep up, and eventually surrendered to the bank. John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, not Agricultural Practices in Northeast Oklahoma, 1926-1935, and while The Grapes of Wrath is an essential document in the record of our national experience, you would not want to consult it as a guide to farm policy. The novel as a genre gains strength and resilience from its engagement with the social sciences, but we should not confuse it with social science itself; the division of labor between the two exists for a reason and is essential to the vitality of both.
I do not think that Scott actually means to suggest that a novel is inherently a more trustworthy document than a Fed white paper or that the purposes of the two are coextensive. One assumes that a novelist may be as blinkered as the social scientist she meets in the faculty lounge. What we might legitimately ask a novel of the financial crisis to do is to speak to the moral imagination of the reader, to invigorate it, and to extend its reach to people and things that are not customarily the objects of her concern. That is part of its genre work. And is that not a enough?
Lionel Trilling both believed in the salience of literature to political thought and cautioned against asking the novel to do too much. Here he is in his most famous work, The Liberal Imagination (1950): “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance, not merely because so much of modern literature has explicitly directed itself upon politics, but more importantly because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” But in 1946, in an introduction to The Partisan Reader that was published shortly after the MacDonald schism and might be read as a commentary upon it, he had struck a more cautious note: “Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.” Trilling, like Orwell, is a writer in whom ideologues of all stripes seem to find support for their views; most recently the neo-conservatives have sought to claim him as their own. But Trilling’s work seeks an autonomous space for literature and rejects a philistine criticism that would assess works primarily for their ideological correctness.
Scott himself clearly belongs to the political left, and the novel of politics he asks for is implicitly one that would vindicate his concerns. We generally think of the political novel as having a progressive or reformist purpose. It is well to remember, though, that two of the most influential political novels in the history of the West, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, were written from the right — and continue to animate conservative politics today. Another species of political novel, the anti-communist novel — Darkness at Noon, Animal Farm, The Gulag Archipelago — is not rightist in origin per se (Orwell, for example, described himself as a democratic socialist) but is strongly anti-utopian. Indeed, the novel as an art form is inherently anti-utopian, inasmuch as it seeks to point us to conflicts within the individual, and between the individual and society, that are inherently intractable. A political novel’s happy ending usually does not mean the end of war — which, be it literal or figurative, is with us always — but with the protagonist’s achieving a separate peace.
If I am right that, among other things, the political novel faces a problem of scale — national politics tends toward the totalizing vision, while narrative fiction wants to be intimate — then the solution may be for the writer to deal with a small bore problem that can nonetheless be “scaled up:” a part that will stand for the whole. Ideology, in both its grainier and more sweeping senses, is at the center of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a somewhat archly ironic account of American political values in the aughts. Franzen engages politics directly, in that several of his characters are actively trying to shape policy, and more subtly, in dramatizing how ideological tropes seep into private life and affect the choices we make in our homes and neighborhoods. Freedom extends themes present in Franzen’s earlier novel, The Corrections, but it takes on conservative political values more directly and with markedly less sympathy for their representatives. As such, Freedom was dealt with critically as a political novel (at least in part), though less in terms of whether the reviewer shared Franzen’s politics than whether Franzen’s attempt to bring ideology to the center of a domestic novel was prima facie legitimate.
Sam Tanenhaus, the author of a biography of Whitaker Chambers and a narrative history of the conservative moment in the United States, hailed Freedom as “a masterpiece of American fiction;” B.R. Myers, the author of A Reader’s Manifesto and a professor of North Korean politics (and therefore a man who knows something about the dangers of ideology) called it “a monument to insignificance.” Myers seemed to feel that Franzen was writing a kind of socialist realism, with his characters acting as representatives of certain tendencies in national life rather than vital individuals; he also found their diction and their inner lives banal (perhaps he has lived outside the country for too long to recall what we are actually like). Tanenhaus and Myers are both strong critics, and their radically different responses to Freedom suggest an ongoing lack of critical consensus regarding how politics should be dealt with in narrative fiction. Some critics demand that the author’s politics be entirely soluble in the narrative, while others find a plainer statement of ideological assumptions bracing. This lack of consensus is not necessarily a matter for concern — chacun â son gout, after all — but it does leave the writer who has a sustained interest in ideology with a hard problem.
Freedom occasionally suffers from the impatience of its author with the very narrative techniques that Franzen employed to such extraordinary effect in The Corrections. While in the latter novel, Franzen’s use of free indirect style was masterful in bringing to life each of the members of the Lambert family, in his presentation of Freedom’s Berglunds, Franzen hovers rather too close by, over-managing our interpretations. Freedom sometimes descends into a hectoring tone, holding forth rather than narrating. Its author seems burdened by the responsibility of telling us things we already ought to know. But a novel is not meant to be a substitute for watching PBS Newshour; it is not a discourse on citizenship. This is not to say that Freedom is not an excellent novel — only to suggest that Franzen did not manage the problem of blending his aesthetic and didactic purposes perfectly. There is something in the reader that wants to resist Freedom even as he admires its art and recognizes the world it creates.
Amy Waldman’s The Submission deals not with the financial crisis that is Scott’s immediate concern but with other signal event of our recent politics, the 9/11 attacks. The Submission starts with a high concept: the jury judging the anonymous submissions for a Ground Zero memorial unwittingly chooses an American of Middle Eastern descent, a slick, arrogant, and thoroughly secularized product of the Yale School of Architecture named Mohammed Khan. The choice of Khan activates opposition, some of it ugly, from a coalition motivated variously by religious animus, opportunism, and survivor guilt. Others rally to Khan’s defense in the name of tolerance, civic order, and aesthetic values. The ensuing struggle over the meaning of 9/11 and what might constitute an appropriate response to such a spectacularly successful act of political violence is a portrait of New York in that raw and tumultuous period that registers the change in mood and understanding created by the attacks.
The Submission was published to enormous acclaim, and it is in many respects a worthy novel, but three years later it already feels dated. Waldman’s model was clearly Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Submission answers Wolfe’s call for a less effete and more epistemic account of what actually goes on at the street level of our livid cities. While Waldman is a writer of patience and skill, the result still feels like a kind of super-journalism. The people in The Submission succeed as representatives of their social environment, but they never quite escape their representative status to succeed as individuals; as such, they are not literary characters at all, in the sense of seeming to possess autonomous selves. It is important to remember, as Wolfe has often failed to do, that while the techniques of fiction and newspaper reporting may seem similar, their purposes are very different and their truth-value depends on different claims. The Submission by its very conception carries a very heavy documentary burden, which necessarily inhibits the imaginative freedom of its author. Imagination is the faculty in which Scott places his final measure of trust, but imagination is often precisely what suffers when the novelist seeks to fulfill a didactic purpose.
Literature is naturally against the grain of ideology. Ideology seeks to impose a pattern on historical experience, sometimes by violence; the patterns of literature perform gentler acts of persuasion, and they emerge only gradually. To get to the place where the pattern coheres and the author’s meaning emerges (assuming that we are in the realm of novels that seek to perform in this way), the reader must pass through the slough of ambiguity. The pattern is the novel’s purpose, but the ambiguity is its basic condition. While the novelist may be God in the universe of his narrative, he accepts that his effect on the world is diffuse and indirect.
In asking that American novelists engage more fully with the political dimension of our national life, Scott is asking them to risk something of the freedom of thought and expression they enjoy, derived from their very unworldliness, that gives their work (for Scott) a unique truth-value. When the novelist becomes just another person who wants to sell us something, her moral status suffers, and so perhaps does her claim on our attention. So we should be careful about what we ask novelists (and poets, and filmmakers) to do.
Taken more broadly, however, Scott’s recent attempts to diagnose why our culture is so persistently, noxiously trivial, even as our claims regarding our special status in world affairs become more grandiose and deluded, seem both honorable and timely. This is not say that Scott is a cultural pessimist per se; indeed, he rightly regards a renewable capacity for enthusiasm as a necessary part of a critic’s equipment. He is not despairing, but he is disappointed. Like the PR critics, who as the children of immigrants were both in love with America and perpetually disappointed by it, he is inclined to think that we ought to do better. “Doing better” might start with demanding art that demands more of us.
Image Credit: Flickr/Jaime Martínez-Figueroa
Imagine a brilliant work of science fiction that wins the National Book Award and is written by a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. Imagine that it is filled with dazzling leaps of the imagination, stylish prose, unique characters, philosophical insights, and unexpected twists and turns, but also draws on scientific concepts at every juncture. Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre.
And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it.
Implausible? Hardly! Such is precisely the case with Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, published in Italian in 1965 and translated into English three years later. (William Weaver’s excellent translation won the National Book Award in 1969, back when it had a translation category.) Today, the book is mostly remembered for its postmodern experimentalism or its fanciful narrative devices. But for readers coming to Calvino for the first time, Cosmicomics often takes a back seat to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or perhaps Invisible Cities.
But Cosmicomics is my favorite Calvino book, just as ingenious and well-written as those better-known works, and even more delightful. Many absurdist and postmodern narratives achieve their finest effects by frustrating the reader — indeed Calvino’s most famous novel stands out as the classic example of literary frustration, which is both its subject and effect. Cosmicomics, in contrast, is that rarity among progressive texts: its premises are absurd and almost incoherent, yet the plot lines are filled with romance, drama, and conflicts that draw the readers deeper and deeper into the text.
I hesitate before telling you about the specific tales in this collection of intertwined science stories. If I tell you, you will refuse to read the book. You won’t want to read, for example, a love story about a mollusk — one, moreover, who has never even seen his beloved. I know that this sounds somewhat less romantic than Pride and Prejudice, but trust me, even mollusks (at least those envisioned by Italo Calvino) are capable of great passions. By the same token, a story in which the only action is looking at distant stars through a telescope must sound more boring than a Brady Bunch rerun marathon. But I assure you that you’re wrong. Calvino extracts Dostoevskian pathos from his starwatcher, and you will feel his pain and humiliation as he searches for personal redemption among the cosmos.
Each story in Cosmicomics begins with a scientific premise, which serves as a springboard for a story. The protagonists might be mollusks or dinosaurs or even physical or mathematical constructs, but Calvino infuses them will all the foibles and fancies of humans. Here we encounter unfettered ambition, pride and envy, jealousy and desire — all the same ingredients that we cherish in ancient Greek tragedy or Elizabethan drama, but now translated into an extravagant scientific framework. None of the science here really adds up, but you won’t complain, because Calvino compensates with fancy for his abuses of the rules of physics. Consider the end result a kind of Einsteinian magical realism.
The opening story, “The Distance of the Moon,” is a case in point. The scientific premise for this tale is a simple one: “At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth.” Ask a hundred authors to turn this concept into a story — I doubt one of them will even approach the beautiful, fabulist tale Calvino serves up. “Climb up on the moon?” he asks. “Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.” From this absurdist stance, Calvino constructs a love triangle filled with pathos and longing, a rich psychological tapestry in which the experimental aspects of the tale, breathtaking in their own way, do not distract from the inherent appeal of the storyline. Yes, this is one of the great science fiction stories — and you could even read it as a critique of the sci-fi genre — yet it will never get acknowledged as such. Calvino is deemed too “respectable” to show up anywhere near Heinlein and Asimov on a bookshelf.
In another story, Calvino constructs a much different love triangle, complicated by the unpleasant fact that each individual is falling through empty space in parallel lines. How do you consummate a love affair if your line never intersects with the beloved’s? Leave it to Calvino to find inspiration in such a strange premise. In “How Much Should We Bet?”, I am reminded again of Dostoevsky — this time of his short novel The Gambler — but here the wagers involve the evolution of the cosmos and the unfolding of history. In “The Aquatic Uncle,” an amphibian is embarrassed by his great-uncle, still living as a fish after the rest of the species has evolved into land-dwellers. He needs to introduce his fiancée to his family, and is ashamed at the prospect of her meeting his fishy forbear. Can you imagine what happens? Trust me, you can’t…but Calvino can.
In describing these stories, I find myself dwelling again and again on the human interest angle. How peculiar that must sound, when humans really never appear in this book. As such, Cosmicomics ranks among a tiny number of major works of fiction that can dispense with people and still embrace humanity — I’m thinking of books such as Flatland or Watership Down or Animal Farm. Each of these novels is better known than Cosmicomics, but Calvino’s stunning work deserves mention in the same breath. Science fiction readers owe it to themselves to track it down. And those who hate sci-fi might be surprised, too, by how much literary panache can be found among the outer cosmos and sub-atomic particles, at least after they have been magically transformed by Italo Calvino.
Seth Lerer is one of the nation’s foremost scholars of medieval literature and culture and a distinguished professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. His books include Chaucer and His Readers, Boethius and Dialogue, Error and the Academic Self: The Scholarly Imagination, Medieval to Modern, Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language, and, most recently, Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History as well as a new edition of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. In 2009, he will become the Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego.The most memorable book I read this past year was Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Originally published in 1908, it is more than just a children’s book. It is a document of Edwardian English fantasy, a rich reflection on nature and culture, and a meditation on the aesthetics of domestic life. At times, the prose is a lush reminder of the age of Oscar Wilde. At other times, it is a witty, theatrical evocation of the idiom of Gilbert and Sullivan. In the figure of Mr. Toad, Grahame has created one of the great literary heroes of modern prose: a blend of tragedy and farce, narcissism and nicety. It is as if Charles Dickens had written an entire novel with Mr. Micawber as the true hero, or as if Shakespeare had written a whole play about Falstaff (which, in some sense, he did, and there are bits and pieces of The Merry Wives of Windsor larded into Mr. Toad’s adventures). And, more than animal adventure, the book also reflects on the political and social upheavals of the early twentieth century – the closing rescue of Toad Hall from the invading stoats and weasels resonates with the the literature of invasion and rebellion so popular in the first decade of the century, while at the same time looking forward decades later to Orwell’s Animal Farm.The thrill of reading this book — now as an adult — has provoked my preparing a new, annotated edition of it for Harvard University Press, to appear in May of 2009.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Garth and Elise had some aditional thoughts on yesterday’s question: Elise, daughter of a children’s librarian and a great afficianado of too-smart-for-kids-too-fun-for-adults fantasy, likes the Garth Nix books (Lirael, Sabriel, and something else I can’t remember). I used to love Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer. Also, the Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett collabo Good Omens is pretty awesome. And did anyone actually read Summerland [by Michael Chabon]? Maybe it’s good, too.Great ideas. I can’t speak to many of these picks, although they sound intriguing. I didn’t read Summerland and I didn’t have any customers rush back into the store a week after buying it saying that it changed their kid’s life, as I occasionally do with, say, the Philip Pullman books. On the other hand, Chabon is a talented writer, so it makes sense that the book is at the very least quite readable. Moving on. Garth also posed an interesting question in which we enjoy the pleasures of trying to predict the future: Here’s my book question. Who are the under-50 writers you and your readers think are capable of producing something that will be read widely and passionately 100 years from now? Here’s my extemporaneous list: Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle, Nick Baker, Paul Beatty, Jhumpa Lahiri, Conor McPherson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Patrick Chamoiseau and myself. Any thoughts?This is an interesting question having to do with capabilities. I think it’s fair to say that with the possible exception of Franzen’s The Corrections, none of these writers has as of yet written something that will be read in a 100 years. I am familiar with most but not all of the writers mentioned above, having said that, here are the writers that I think have the best chance to become immortal from the above list: Franzen, Wallace, Whitehead, and Lahiri. On the other hand I’m not sure that Zadie Smith or Suzan-Lori Parks should be included at all, though that may have to do more with my personal taste than the quality of their writing. This is of course an impossible question to answer, but you have to wonder what the prevailing opinion might have been to the same question posed 50 to 100 years ago. Do Hemingway and Faulkner get mentioned? Or is everyone convinced that Sinclair Lewis wll have enduring undying popularity. At any rate, it’s clear that the most fervent current acclaim is no guarantee of canonization. (For what it’s worth, the most voraciously read books that are at least 50 years old are as follows: The Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, 1984 and Animal Farm. These will be joined by To Kill a Mockingbird in a few years when it turns 50.) I would add a few names to Garth’s list George Saunders, Gary Schteyngart, Maile Meloy, and my favorite to take the title, Jonathan Safran Foer. Finally, I would like to point out three authors who may have already written something that will be read by future generations. All three have only recently turned fifty, so I don’t mind bending the rules to include them in this discussion. They are: Denis Johnson (age 54), Ian McEwan (age 55), Haruki Murakami (age 54), and maybe I’ll throw in Paul Auster (age 55) for good measure…….. Anyone else got some ideas???Loving the Little GuysI went to a “publishing party” at Book Soup in West Hollywood the other day to celebrate the emergence of two local publishers. First Cut Books is the coolest online book store ever. Each month or so they feature a new set of great books that their dedicated staff of reviewers selects and recommends. First Cut is also a publisher and their first publication is Filthy, a quarterly about baseball pitching, to which I am a contributor. Also there was Tam Tam Books, devoted publisher of all things Serge Gainsbourg, Boris Vian, and Guy Debord. Small publishers and the devoted people who run them may be the most exciting thing about the publishing industry.A Brief ExcerptFrom the book I’m reading right now: “I watch him go not without a tinge of envy. In nearly two decades of meditation the Buddha has not told me a single joke. Surely one would laugh for eternity?”