No novel has entranced me this year like the French author Mathias Énard’s Compass, short-listed for the 2017 Booker Prize. Énard, a writer with tremendous empathy for his characters, both as individuals, and also as contextualized individuals embedded within contemporary geopolitical conflicts—the book is dedicated on the last page “to the Syrian people”—writes what ostensibly seems a didactic treatise on the world of orientalist academics. The protagonist, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist whose dreamscape and memories over the course of one sleepless night populate the entirety of the text while taking us through both Eastern and Western lands: Vienna, where Franz lies on a sickbed in the present, to Aleppo, Tehran, Damascus, Paris, and Istanbul, to which Énard pays special attention as the historic “conduit” between Europe and Asia. As Franz dreams restlessly about the woman he loves— another orientalist scholar, Sarah, a historian, whose polyglot prodigiousness on all things worldly and otherworldly pays homage to all forms of scholarship—Compass emerges as both a technical and scholarly feat as well as a love letter to the “Orient” and a rebuke to the fiction of its otherness.
In amusingly familiar academic segues we can see, through Franz, what Sarah might write about: a fanciful article entitled “On the Cosmopolitan Fates of Magical Objects,” Franz imagines (probably accurately) as a title for an article that Sarah would write to show “how these objects are the result of successive shared efforts…that Orient and Occident never appear separately, that they are always intermingled, present in each other, and that these words—Orient, Occident—have no more heuristic value than the unreachable destinations they designate.” Énard’s brilliance is as self-evident as it is comical: Where else but in the idiosyncratic exchanges of academics could we ruminate on such grand ideas through the study of genie lamps and flying carpets? Through Franz’s one-night journey through memory, we meet quirky Egyptologists, composers, writers, archaeologists, philosophers, even charlatans; many of whose stories, whether they physically featured in Franz’s life or not, peter out in a tale of heartbreaking fits and starts. Franz and Sarah’s own story is, predictably, no less sad.
I have been in awe of Énard’s gifts since Street of Thieves, during which I marveled at the empathy with which he treated his Moroccan protagonist, Lakhdar, a young man who travels from Tangier to Tarifa and finally, Barcelona, haunted by an Islamist bombing he had minor involvement in and his excommunication from his family, but assuaged by his love for literature and art: Ibn Battuta and Naguib Mahfouz, the familiar beauties of Tangier and the exotic newness of Barcelona. In Compass, Énard ostensibly faces less of a challenge writing a protagonist with whom he shares at least some cultural sensibilities (although obsessed as Franz is with the appropriation of Oriental music on European composers from Franz Liszt to Hector Berlioz to Ludwig van Beethoven, all of whom get several fascinating pages of description, we shouldn’t minimize the author’s feat: to my knowledge Énard is not an ethnomusicologist), even as the ghost of Edward Said hangs insistently over the orientalist scholars’ cerebral quibbling.
Books like these give me an unerring hope in the human capacity to reach out to an unknown self and try, with meticulous research, observation, erudition, but principally with empathy, to understand a self distinct from one’s own. When I first began to read Compass, I had just begun writing another short story of my own: the first that didn’t include subcontinental Muslim characters. I struggled with the sweep and ambition of the story I wanted to write—one that would have to pass through many generations of an interracial family to plumb the effects of environmental disaster—the Dust Bowl for instance—to demonstrate the ephemeral nature of intergenerational memory. I settled on a four-monologue, play-like structure for the story: one for each generation. I spent months reading first-hand accounts, history texts, longform stories about the impacts and memories of natural disasters. I used my historiographical research in environmental history to think about the people in books as people I could try to know. I read books that described catastrophes: starting off with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I remembered as a ruthless story of tenant farmers trapped in economic hardship and poverty as the Dust Bowl reared its ugly head; as crops failed and harsh drought swept over the prairie.
When I finally had a draft I could consider complete, I gave it to my first reader—my most generous reader. She returned it with the terse comment that I should “write what I know.”
What had I done wrong? Had I failed in my research? The details were all correct, I was confident about that. Had I failed to do justice to the two white characters from whose perspective I wrote the first two monologues? Or to the two mixed-race black characters in the last two monologues? Had I failed to empathize?
I went back to the drawing board, trying to convince myself to jettison the story entirely. But the logic of writing solely what I knew was unconvicing. How can I reconcile myself to writing stories about people solely from my cultural background when the stories I want to write have a different sweep, a distinct subject matter that requires me to understand characters outside of my lived experience? That is what I have always seen as the point of literature: its capacity for universality.
As it turns out, this isn’t unfamiliar ground for writers today. Rachel Cusk, recently profiled in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman, had her first book published at 26. She now deems her early work as inferior. Thurman takes Cusk’s disillusionment as a reflexive turn away from the earliest iterations of herself because she managed “to upend the plot of her own life—to break up her family, then to lose her house and her bearings.” Cusk is now married for the third time; about her book Aftermath, a painterly if perplexing memoir about the dissolution of Cusk’s marriage with Adrian Clarke, Thurman argues that Clarke “haunts the text like a ghost.”
Thurman wonders: Why doesn’t Aftermath explain why the marriage dissolved? “This was partly for the children’s sake,” Cusk says. But Aftermath met with some cruel reviews, after which Cusk seemed to change course. She says of her trajectory: “There seems to be some problem about my identity. But no one can find it, because it’s not there—I have lost all interest in having a self. Being a person has always meant getting blamed for it.”
Profiling writers of fiction, mining their lives for clues to explain the eccentricities and artfulness, or perhaps even artifice inside the work themselves—not just thematically but as a direct analog for a protagonist or an entire plot—has become a bit of a trope. Ever since Lena Dunham burst on to the scene, the justification of using autobiographies as the principal quarry from which to mine stories from the vantage point of the writer (what is essentially primary research for the literary critic) has become increasingly more ubiquitous. But of course, you don’t need to have a degree in literary criticism to know that the tradition is far older than Dunham. One could argue it is steeped in the pursuit of the Great American Novel itself: in the specificities of Philip Roth’s Newark Jewish oeuvre, or Norman Mailer’s racially-charged machismo, or as literary critics rigorously argue, on any work of fiction anywhere and any time.
But a certain timbre of particularity, coincident with the rise of the personal essay, has most certainly become more central and self-aware in literature of late: specific questions about which characters represent the author and whether plots actually occurred in the author’s real life pop up in interviews when they were once considered gauche to ask a novelist. A recent interview between writers Chelsea Martin and Juliet Escoria finds them talking about “self-serving writing,” work inspired by autobiography, as if it represented the pinnacle of truth-telling. Escoria talks intimately about her book Juliet the Maniac, contending that she doesn’t really “understand the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction.”
There’s more than a whiff of writers being far too hard on themselves. The problem is why contemporary literary trends motivate young writers to believe that their own personal histories are the only histories they can plumb with any believable depth: a belief that visibly flails when confronted with the Enlightenment origins of humanistic “imaginative” capacities that can be traced to at least as far back as Denis Diderot. As Jean le Rond d’Alembert demonstrates in his Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, for Diderot painting, sculpture ,and architecture were deemed at the head of knowledge known as “Imitation,” but it was poetry and music that demonstrated imagination: that the skill demonstrated “by the warmth, the movement, and the life it is capable of giving, it seems rather to create than to portray them.” This creation was rarely conceived merely as reproduction, nor has it been for a very long time. After all, with writers like Leila Guerriero and Joan Didion, as Daniela Serrano so powerfully writes, the compulsion is reversed: it is not looking at yourself that is the most uncomfortable, but at other people.
There can be no doubt, however, that “identity”—with all the limitations and deliverances the word connotes—has become so powerful in popular culture, that the imaginative arts, across different mediums, have found themselves in a bit of a bind. Dunham, when criticized about the whiteness of Girls, claimed that she wanted “to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.” In Sofia Coppola’s recent remake of the Civil War-set, Don Siegel movie The Beguiled, she shifted the perspective from that of the male interloper’s to the women in the cloistered Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, but crucially she also excised the role of a slave character—one that was present both in Thomas Cullinan’s original book, which served as the source material for both films, and in the first film, where she was played by Mae Mercer.
Coppola received her share of outrage for “whitewashing,” an accusation she deflected the way Dunham did: by essentially arguing that she didn’t wish to take an important subject lightly the way the original source material did; instead, by focusing on what she knew best. But if the dogged discoverers of Elena Ferrante’s true identity are to be believed, Ferrante didn’t know much about the poverty of Lila and Elena’s Neapolitan upbringing either. Has lived experience supplanted all other forms of knowledge as the sole true source of authenticity? As an avid Ferrante fan, I take umbrage with such a reading: I could care less about her true identity—and if she hasn’t truly lived it, then the Neapolitan novels merely display a capacity for virtuosic observation and insight.
But if this is truly an impasse, the contemporary moment in fiction, then it is a problem we must contend with. Arguably we are already contending with it, although perhaps with less success than one would hope. Lionel Shriver told an audience at a writer’s festival last year that, “Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are ‘allowed”’to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” As Sarah Schulman reported, Viet Thanh Nguyen responded in the L.A. Times by saying: “It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.”
Nguyen makes a compelling point: we can use this schism to our advantage, but only if we understand the baggage that attends literary, cultural, and political history. Personally, I found Coppola’s version of The Beguiled captivating—with a particularly heartbreaking performance by Kirsten Dunst with a depth almost entirely missing from the earlier incarnation—just as I find much to admire in Dunham’s writing on Girls. But both come saddled with a crucial lack of ambition and not, as they had ostensibly hoped, racial sensitivity. Wouldn’t The Beguiled be all the more interesting if Coppola had extended her nuanced portrayals to a black female character? If it weren’t so illustrative of the loaded identitarian schism at the heart of leftist politics, it would make for the perfect right-wing conspiracy: not only have well-meaning liberals become too PC, they are now roundly dismissed as blinkered by the same folks whose ire they hoped to deflect in the first place.
It goes without saying that the problem doesn’t operate solely at the level of the artist herself. Somehow the gambit has been working, arguably with a deep historical legacy, to widen gaps between artists and audiences, with publishers eager to pander to particular readers depending on the artist. It is by now a cliché that many novels written by women are designed to look like romance novels. On the covers of her books being targeted to specifically to female audiences, Margaret Atwood, in an interview in 2015, mentioned that “there were probably some quite disappointed readers.” Atwood’s interviewer Jessica Stites responded that she couldn’t get her friends to start reading the Neapolitan novels because the first book has a wedding dress on it. Meanwhile, author Nnedi Okorafor wrote a book with a female Muslim protagonist, only for her publisher to suggest a cover with a white female figure on it. One wonders: How could publishers be failing so much to adapt? Surely this is not what Nguyen had in mind. Indeed, if writers are to be brave they must truly go there, and like any writer for any story, do meticulous research. But that may not be enough: one hopes writers have the capacity to publish in a world less maladapted to receive their work as well.
How did we find ourselves here in the first place? Surely writers never decided in closed-door meetings that the social scientific and humanistic academic emphasis on Culture with a capital c would bleed into fiction to such a degree that writers would begin to parse identities into little parcels, keeping only those they could hold ground on; seeing the act of storytelling itself as one circumscribed by the belonging of a identitarian category.
Far more likely is that for writers this is a passive process, one driven by our politics (and/or publishers), by reading the expectations of audiences or anticipating outrage, fears, and concerns that are exacerbated by the near-monopoly in fiction of white authors. Surely writers writ large know there is something reductive about using our own lives as not only the canvases for our art, but of art itself. The argument, or perhaps merely a passive trend riding on a form of herd mentality, seems to dictate that the craft itself has become one’s calling card. Which is to say: not only has the liminal space between identity and individuality been overcome, but storytelling has crashed right through its center, obviating the need for anything else. Why should a story need anything more than an identity? Why shouldn’t Kumail Nanjiani plumb the comedic depths of his own lived trajectory the same way Lena Dunham, Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., and countless others do?
There can be no prescriptive answer on this question that is not simultaneously political. But I suspect that there comes a point when the regurgitated version of one person’s life, especially when that person belongs to a minority group, begins to feel tired: a genre as trope; Oriental fiction with veils on the covers.
The ruse being played here is that there is no more a sense of a story without an identity preserved through the complex Venn diagrams one inhabits (or fails to); no universality, no totality: merely a small set of interlocking bricks that hold together the walls of our perception of the world. A place where Plato’s Cave is now color-coded, numbered and charted—hierarchies everywhere, opportunities only to move up or down or sideways like chess pieces. And now that the Cave is so stratified, why feel the need to leave it and see it as it is? How can one tell a story, any story, about any form of universal phenomenon if the response one instinctively pre-empts is: How could you know anything about that? This should have been written by a white gender non-conforming person who grew up without money or the awareness of privilege but nonetheless took advantage of it and grew to believe in less humane economic precepts than she/he/they would have had they not been white. It underlies an inherent paralysis, not too different from the paralysis Amitav Ghosh describes for storytelling which is failing to grapple with climate change in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.
Climate is not identity or racial politics, however, regardless of how closely their consequences are intertwined, but the concept of paralysis, I suspect, prevents talented artists like Sofia Coppola from stretching the bounds of their own ambitions; and more dangerously than for the minority writer it becomes a convenient alibi for the white artist’s conception of believability. But as with most things, it is a double-edged sword. How can we disregard the critique of the white writer who considers himself (often himself) objective enough to take on any character, a critique which has only become more prominent because marginalized writers have pushed it up in discourse after decades of unrewarded work? Today, at least, it is acknowledged in some circles that not only do minority writers deserve a pulpit, but that storytelling in turn requires minority writers (although certainly not a standard held up nearly enough).
Still, it requires a peculiar moment in contemporary culture when certain white male writers can comically (and of course also infuriatingly) decry that their jobs are harder as white men than if they were minorities. In that way, storytelling as with most things bears a truly striking institutional likeness—to the extent that the enterprise of writing and publishing is an institution—to our current politics.
Regardless, the argument of constriction applies to minority writers too—identitarian thought has bled into the wholesome creed of “write what you know.” We have erected walls for ourselves that are both comforting in the way that occupying a niche gives a writer and claustrophobic in the sense of wells running dry, new writers providing old stories that are tired reflections of the works of older writers. Nowhere in my experience is this more true than in fiction from my native South Asia, where the timbre of even the most lauded works by Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid, and Kamila Shamsie has acquired a quality of permanence most subcontinental writers cannot help but emulate in the sprint for awards success. Interestingly, the most incisive critics of Roy have recently pointed out the utter lack of tonal difference between her abundant nonfiction and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: where non-fiction can afford to proselytize, fiction ceases to breathe when crafted in the same mold. Again, however, publishers erect roadblocks in the name of pandering to certain audiences. From a Pakistani perspective, it is all to easy for me to envision publishers who expect me to deal with Islamophobia or terrorism on some level in all my writing, even if apropos of nothing.
And thus: in reifying the fictions of identity (the baseline fact most left-leaning writers can agree on), we have elevated almighty Culture, enforced monopolies of singular identities and mashed them all up. No longer can storytelling be ambitious in the fashion of Doris Lessing (who admittedly dabbled in both very autobiographical and very non-autobiographical work, the height of the latter reached in her sublime Canopus in Argos space fiction).
Instead, every story would serve itself best as another iteration of your own personal diagram, chipping away at your own identity slowly, painstakingly, even dully over the decades like Philip Roth, but surely not like Mathias Énard: there would no imagination, only personal research. No external perception, only introspection.
With this conversation raging in my head as a writer of color, it’s fascinating sometimes to dissect my own responses to my work. Had my first reader got it right—was she letting me off the hook by telling me to write what I knew because the story didn’t hold up to the literary standards she knew I aspired to? Very possibly. I didn’t let the story go, however. I doubled down, and worked even harder at it. But even more intriguing to me than the cases where I double down are those where I have chosen to let go. When my first work of fiction was published, at The Rumpus, my editor told me that the website had commissioned an artist to illustrate my story. I couldn’t wait, both for the story, and for the art it would sit alongside.
When the story was published, I was astonished. The style of the art was sparse and completely appropriate to the story: three drawings in all. But curiously, the second illustration, inspired by a pivotal scene where my male Pakistani protagonist has a brief exchange with a friend’s grandmother, looked suspiciously Western. There was a reference to chai in the text, but scant other details. I remember instinctively thinking: there’s no way the grandmother would look like that. A Pakistani grandmother would be wearing a loose dupatta, along with a shalwar kameez—a long tunic and loose trousers.
I thought about it for a long time. Ultimately, I decided that there was something about that drawing that captured other specificities—the posture of the grandmother, her spirit—that moved me. I concluded that it was great as it was. The artist had read my story and decided to interpret it the best way she could, and despite the initial skepticism it aroused in me, I liked the idea of the illustration reading my work as something transcendent, something neither here nor there but everywhere: maybe, something even universal.
The day after the story came out, I contacted the artist: one of her works hangs on my bedroom wall, a reminder both of my resistance and release and of the artist’s intended or unintended attempt to universalize my work. I don’t wish to ask. Why should I? No matter how much specificity we try to achieve, we will always fall short.
After all, as the (white, male) writer Mark Greif tells us, “your life has to be your own: no one else can live it for you, as you can’t enter anyone else’s life to know it feels.”
Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.
In the summer of 2000, two friends and I embarked on an epic cross-country drive. In preparation for the journey, we rented a Dodge Caravan, stocked up on peanut butter, and debated where to go. Using a Rand McNally map book, I laid out our path in pen, drawing lines from campsite icon to campsite icon across erica and back. We planned to leave from Delaware, where I was a senior in college, in late June, and return in mid-August — in all, six weeks of whiskey-addled, open-skied adventure. For the quiet moments — of which there turned out to be few — I brought along a worn copy of The Grapes of Wrath. Like the Joads, we were also striving for California — but with more Led Zeppelin CDs in tow.
That month and a half became one of the fullest periods of my life, with one exhilarating escapade after another: outracing tornadoes in Kansas, nearly freezing to death in Yosemite, close calls with bears in both Sequoia and Glacier National Parks. We hiked and camped and ate our peanut butter. With cheap snapshot cameras, we ran through dozens of rolls of film. From Seattle to Pittsburgh, we forswore bathing, a foul contest of wills. It was all very stupid and perfectly glorious. It was, as they say, a formative experience.
Afterwards, we made a pact to do a similar expedition every year, but outside of a few days in West Virginia in 2001, our oath died on the vine. As I progressed through my 20s, though, I still thought of myself as the same daring moron who once pushed a minivan to 110 on a Montana interstate. My girlfriend and I would go on long drives just to see what we could see; we hiked with the same questing spirit I’d carried on my trip. Once, in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, we became covered in deer ticks — and as we scraped them from our shins, laughing in horror beside our car, I had the feeling that, uncomfortable as I was, I remained on the proper track. You can’t get covered in bugs if you don’t enter the woods.
As time went on, I began to read about people who, I flattered myself to think, had a similarly — if more pronounced — searching spirit. There was Percy Fawcett of The Lost City of Z, who rambled through the Amazon as if it were Central Park. And Into the Wild‘s Chris McCandless, whose fatal Alaskan trek was equally noble and misguided. I became a sucker for such narratives, subscribing to Outside magazine for its pieces on doomed hikers and wayward canoeists. Most know Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run for the creepy 10-toe running shoes it helped to popularize, but I was more taken by its description of Mexico’s Tarahumara and their daunting mountain races. To write Savage Harvest, about the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, Carl Hoffman traveled to New Guinea — just as I would have done, I thought as I read. After all, I was pretty intrepid myself.
Except that I wasn’t; not anymore. I was now married to that girlfriend, and had become both a father and an eternally fatigued commuter. Any journey I now took was occurring inside my skull: instead of going on spontaneous road trips, I was reading Charles Portis’s Norwood. Instead of hiking until my feet bled, I was reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Instead of tearing across Montana, I was reading Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land. I had outsourced the work of outdoor experience to various authors, my risk limited to paper cuts and coffee spills. It had happened slowly, imperceptibly, until the transformation was all but complete. The version of myself who “got out there and did things” had been replaced by a softer, safer, far more boring person.
In short, I was spending too much time reading about interesting people and almost no time being one — an insight that recently hit me wit depressing force. I’m not sure what spurred the revelation — perhaps it was the contrast between the solitude of reading and the chaos of what I read. Maybe it struck me that I’d just read two books about people surviving deadly cold (Crazy for the Storm, The Shining) and was, absurdly, preparing to read two more (The Revenant and Alone on the Ice). Whatever it was, I’d become unhealthily comfortable; to quote an old Radiohead song, I was now a pig in a cage on antibiotics — or, less dramatically, a guy in cozy slippers whose vitality had slipped away.
This suspicion was soon confirmed by a family hike — the first my wife and I had been on in years, despite the fact that the woods are a short drive from our house. Though we only walked for two hours or so, and the air was getting cold, the forest quietly filled a need that, in recent years, I had learned to ignore. We marveled at trees that intertwined like rope, gazed at a creek as if it were a national landmark. We inhaled, exhaled, looked for the paint blazes that marked our path. We were again away from everything, and it felt really fucking good.
That was a month and a half ago, and that feeling — the recognition of some innate inner need — hasn’t faded; it now seems to burn within me, steady as a pilot light. I’ve resolved to reclaim myself — my old self, tick-stippled and chased by bears, a person who’d do most anything for the sake of doing it. In a way, it’s already happened; we’ve since gone on another such hike, and we’re planning a what-the-hell-let’s-just-go trip to Tennessee in the spring. Reading is an incredible thing, but it’s a poor substitute for life. I’m amazed, and embarrassed, that I’ve had to learn such an obvious lesson. Yes, adulthood is tiring, children will suck you dry, and it’s easy to stay inside. But I remember now: though I packed The Grapes of Wrath on that long-ago, six-week drive, I read almost none of it. And I didn’t miss it at all.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I met Lindsay Hatton at a party. There’s a lesson there: even a misanthrope should go to a party once in a while — you might meet someone remarkable. Hatton’s first novel, Monterey Bay, is just so beautiful that if we hadn’t met and hit it off, I would hate her. Her book is full of sentences I wish I had written, and it’s such a bold act of imagination, unfolding across decades, mixing history and fiction with a confidence that’s awe-inspiring.
All novels suffer from pithy summary. Monterey Bay is about a young woman and some old men who end up creating an aquarium on the titular body of water. But really, it’s a book about ambition, art, sex, obsession, and the devastation wrought on this planet by people — and the unsettling fact that no matter what we do to it, the planet will outlast us. Hatton kindly let me subject her to a few silly questions about her novel, John Steinbeck, and the weird exercise that is historical fiction. Here we go.
Rumaan Alam: Any summary of your book must, it seems, mention John Steinbeck. He’s a character in the novel, though I would take exception to the suggestion that Monterey Bay is “about” Steinbeck. Is Steinbeck important to you as a writer generally and in this novel specifically?
Lindsay Hatton: To be honest, I knew basically nothing about Steinbeck’s work before writing this novel. I mean, I had been assigned the requisite titles in grade school (The Red Pony, The Pearl, etc.) but for some reason they didn’t make a huge impression. As a kid growing up in Monterey, I didn’t experience him as a writer so much as a tourist attraction. I think there was a part of me that resented the implication that because I lived in “Steinbeck Country” I had to be a superfan. So maybe my avoidance of his work was my first — but certainly not my last — act of pointless literary contrarianism.
It was only once I realized that he’d be a character in my book that I really dug in. And I’m so glad I did. Some of his work I adore (The Log from the Sea of Cortez, The Grapes of Wrath) and some of it I don’t (I know I might be alone here, but I find Of Mice and Men borderline unreadable). Either way, I have great respect for him. He wasn’t afraid of sentiment, which I think is very brave. He had strong ethical convictions that he always stuck to, often at great personal expense. His geographical descriptions are breathtaking. As a writer, I definitely hope to emulate these things.
As a character in my novel, Steinbeck is important but minor. He is my protagonist’s nemesis/role model and the catalyst for one of the book’s odder moments and the source of some occasional comic relief, but other than that he remains pretty much in the background.
RA: Steinbeck isn’t the focus; that honor belongs to Margot Fiske, a wise (but refreshingly adolescent) teenager who arrives in California with her dad, and takes up with Ed Ricketts, who was also a real person. Steinbeck himself fictionalized Ricketts in Cannery Row and I finished the book unsure whether Fiske and her dad were real people too. It minimizes the book to say it’s about the creation of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, though it is that. But is this creation story or creation myth? Until reading your book, it had never occurred to me that “historical fiction” is in fact a very postmodern exercise.
LH: My relationship to historical fiction is probably as complicated as my relationship to Steinbeck. As a reader, I really admire straight-up historical fiction but, as a writer, it plagues me. If I stay too faithful to the facts, my prose goes kind of stale. Like when you leave a glass of water out for a couple days and accidentally take a sip and taste the dust. I hate tasting that dust! I prefer it when I can see, or at least intuit, the act of fabrication and the freshness it brings. I love David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America for precisely these reasons. They’ve done their research, but they take immense pleasure in wild speculation. I think that’s exciting.
I also think history itself is exciting. I like how stories and themes and symbols arise naturally by sheer virtue of time and distance and the cognitive pressure they exert. And then I like messing around with those things for my own devious purposes. So from the very first drafts of the novel, this interweaving of fact and fiction was crucial to me. The question was how to manage it, and the answer I arrived at was to stay almost completely true to certain realms of fact (the wheres/whats/whens/whos of Steinbeck and Ricketts, the marine biological detail, certain technicalities and logistics surrounding the aquarium’s creation) and to go almost completely off the rails as far as Margot was concerned. It is, as you put it, definitely a creation myth as opposed to a creation story. I mean, there’s also the question of whether or not there’s a material difference between those two things. But that’s a debate for another time.
One thing in particular that might seem invented but was actually supported by my research was the possibility of Ricketts being attracted to someone Margot’s age. As Steinbeck said in his eulogy of Ricketts: “When I first met [Ricketts] he was engaged in a scholarly and persistent way in the process of deflowering a young girl.” ‘Nuff said, I think.
RA: Because of the connection to Steinbeck, I expected Monterey Bay to be in the vein of Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel about Henry James, The Master. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t love James enjoying Toibin’s book, but I have no particular feeling about Steinbeck and was swept into your book. That’s testament to your storytelling, but I think it’s also about the way you evoke Northern California. Does writing about geography entail a different set of responsibilities than writing about real people?
LH: When writing, I was hugely aware of place. Northern California is not only gorgeous; it’s also emotionally provocative. Whether they’re occasional visitors or lifelong residents, people feel very strongly about that landscape, often in quite proprietary ways.
So while the well-known, real-life location of the book is a selling point, it’s also kind of a minefield. I knew I’d be in for some criticism if my experience of the place didn’t match the readers’. My representation of the aquarium, in particular, was risky in this way. But that’s not really something I can worry about, you know? I can only be true to what I’ve seen and how I feel. I love my hometown and I acknowledge its spectacular beauty. But I also acknowledge its darkness. My adolescence was, like so many people’s, full of pain and drama and desire and a sense of not belonging. Monterey is where that all took place, so it stands to figure that my filter might be a little…gothic.
As for my responsibility in representing the town, I’m of two minds on that. The chapters that take place in 1998 depict the town as I knew it, so it was a question of accessing memories that are still very vivid and close to the surface. I trusted my own recollections and didn’t do much supporting research. As for showing what it was like in the 1940s, this is where I did my homework. I took this as seriously research-wise as I took my representation of Steinbeck and Ricketts. With very few exceptions, names and dates and locations are accurate. This was difficult. As any writer of historical fiction will tell you, there are times when the facts refuse to fit with your invented narrative; the book becomes a puzzle and not the fun kind. For a while, when things got really rough in that regard, I considered doing what Lauren Groff did so beautifully with Cooperstown in The Monsters of Templeton: presenting a bizarro, renamed version of the real thing. But at the end of the day, Monterey is just too famous and specific a place, and fictionalizing it in that way would have added a layer of metatext that probably would have distracted from the novel’s main goals.
RA: Sex is a not-insignificant aspect of your book. The action begins in the 1940s, but you have the liberty of writing about sex as someone who lives in the 21st century. As the book concludes, Margot is an elderly woman, there’s still something, well, sexual about her. I’m curious to hear what it meant to write about this character as a young girl and an old woman, and how consciously you wanted to explore the question of sex in the book.
LH: Oh yeah! Now we’re getting down to business! It was absolutely vital for me not to present Margot as a victim of anything. Sure, she’s the recipient of some nasty circumstances (a dead mom, a rigid and neglectful father, a nomadic lifestyle, an age-inappropriate romantic relationship that is, no matter how you slice it, very uncool), but I didn’t want to give the reader the easy out of pitying her. When you pity someone, you weaken them. You declaw them and rob them of agency. This is especially true in terms of sex stuff. Why is a show like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit such a huge success? Because sexual victimhood, especially as it relates to young women, is less threatening to us as a society than sexual empowerment. Young women with sex drives worry us: in our entertainment, we’d rather see them raped and killed than complicit in the fulfillment of their own desires. I wanted to Margot to break this mold. I wanted her to transcend the living hell of simultaneous fetishization and underestimation that most female teenagers experience. She is as bold, sexually and otherwise, as the men in her life and remains so despite the consequences.
The trick was making this believable in the 1940s, when sexual mores were different (theoretically, at least) than they are today. Margot had to be largely ignorant of these mores, thus the very unusual parameters of her upbringing.
As for older Margot, her vitality was also very much a conscious choice. Our culture doesn’t like thinking about adolescent sexuality, but we REALLY don’t like thinking about geriatric sexuality. When old people have sex in movies or books or TV shows, it’s usually in service of a punch line. And making something into a joke is often very much like pity: it neuters (ha!) its subject. Margot didn’t deserve that, so I didn’t inflict it on her.
RA: The natural world also figures via the animals, mostly sea creatures, that Ricketts collects, that the aquarium is dedicated to. In these pages, sometimes animals are just animals, but sometimes they feel nearer characters. I wouldn’t say you anthropomorphize, necessarily, but you use animals in a way I found unexpected.
LH: For the most part I like animals a lot. But I see them as animals. This was a lesson I learned during my time working at the aquarium, actually. With the exception of the otters and the occasional sevengill shark, none of the animals on display had official names. Avoiding anthropomorphism was taken very seriously. I wanted that to be true of my book as well.
BUT. You just can’t help yourself sometimes, you know? Sometimes there’s an emotional connection or a symbolism that’s impossible to ignore and you kind of have to run with it. I’m okay with that. I remember that being the case at the aquarium, too. There was this one psychologically deranged, obese sea turtle. The turtle, of course, was given a secret name and extra treats because we had projected human characteristics onto it and had fallen in love with it. And that’s not a bad thing.
RA: I wrestle with the inherent sexism of this question but here we go: you have two young children, but found the time and bandwidth to write this beautiful novel. On the one hand, it’s fucked up that novelists who happen to be women and happen to be parents are asked “How did you do it?” On the flip side, I see some value in coming clean about this; like it may well inspire their compatriots, whether mothers or fathers.
LH: Yeah, I don’t get as rankled by this question as some people do. I see it as an inquiry — however tactless and sexist it can sometimes come off — into the changing role of the artist in society. And this is a thing I’m really glad we’re thinking about. There’s that myth of the solitary (usually male, usually white) creator devoting his life solely to his work. Writing all day in his Parisian garret or lakeside cottage, and then drinking all night: that kind of thing. Art doesn’t get made this way anymore, at least not by anyone I know. But the myth still persists for some reason, and I enjoy the opportunity to help debunk it whenever possible.
You mentioned Colm Toibin’s The Master. I loved that book, too, but one of my predominant reactions to it was: “Man! Henry James had so much time and so few responsibilities!” I feel the opposite way about my life. No time! Too many responsibilities! But then again, I’ve also had the extraordinary benefit of a spouse who supported me financially when I was in the deep, unpaid murk of drafting the novel. I also find endless creative fuel in the act of parenting, however distracting and time consuming it can often be. Do my lifestyle choices stymie my writing in certain ways? Has my journey toward publication probably been longer as a result? Yes and yes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
LH: I really enjoyed Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon. Her description of breastfeeding is perhaps the best I’ve ever read. Also, she is a total virtuoso when it comes to changing POV. And I’ve been obsessed with Joan Didion’s Where I Was From for a while now. Highly recommended for my fellow Californians in self-imposed exile.
My first image of California was the Salinas River valley, just south of Soledad, lush and green in the full peak of summer. This little grove is a rite of passage for millions of the county’s eighth graders, standing on the river bank and listening to the gentle rustle of fauna in relative seclusion, as painted with John Steinbeck’s brush in the opening scene of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s strokes spread over all of California as an iconic vision, especially in the opening scene of the parabolic epic East of Eden: “From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer.” But that is not California anymore, and in the 60 years since East of Eden’s publication, the dense farmland has become something else.
When writing about California, the land and Steinbeck hang as an overture, as family patriarch Bill Blair discovers in the opening of Ann Packer’s new California epic, The Children’s Crusade. He heads south, driving out of San Francisco, noting: “This king’s highway boasted car lots and supermarkets, nothing to fill Bill’s heart, but every so often a vista opened and included the sudden rise of yet more hills, some thickly forested, others the color of hay bales in autumn.” Bill, in his exhaustion as a young doctor, is searching for the last vestiges of Steinbeckian farmland, finally settling on a broad stretch in the Portola Valley with a large, lovely oak tree:
He lay on the ground under the oak tree and looked up between its snaking branches at the bits of startling blue. He wanted to figure out a way to live under that sky without forgetting the other sky, halfway around the world, that for two years had seemed always gray and always to bear down on the land and sea, no matter the season and no matter the weather.
From here, Packer launches her broad and pensive family epic of the Blairs: Bill and his wife, Penny, followed by their four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James. As adults, the four Blair children are brought together again when they must decide whether or not to sell their childhood home and land, the one that their father had founded for them. By settling the Blairs in the Portola Valley, a mere 100 miles away from Soledad, the legacy of East of Eden is inescapable.
East of Eden, lacking the social consciousness of Grapes of Wrath or the accessibility of Of Mice and Men, is possibly Steinbeck’s most difficult work and relatively neglected — despite the scope of its ambition and the author’s own declaration of it as his magnum opus. The story follows the thinly veiled biblical tale of Adam Trask and his brother Charles, as well as Adam’s sons, Caleb and Aron, as they rise and fall on their paradisiacal slice of the Salinas Valley and contend with Adam’s wicked wife, Cathy. Steinbeck’s work is rife with the toil of Genesis: men versus the hardscrabble, scarcely arable land, then men and women versus their temptation as women face the trials of Eve, and brothers’ hands twitch over the jealousy of Cain.
The inheritance of Steinbeck in Packer’s multigenerational novel is strong and diffuse. The Blairs take their creation myth as seriously tied to their land, their house, and their oak tree, well before the advent of strip malls, subdivisions, and the rise of Silicon Valley mansions that narrow in their once green-and-brown landscape. In 1950, two years before East of Eden was published, farmers accounted for 12 percent of the labor force; in 2015, they only amount to one percent. With the evolution of farmland into Silicon Valley and the change from farming to an industrialized and urbanized workforce, the nature of conflict changes, too. Men no longer struggle against the land, toiling as Adam once did because of the bounty of Whole Foods down the road. For Packer’s generations, the conflict has become a much more internal and introspective view of self.
Packer’s Blairs might find themselves much more at ease with Celeste Ng’s Lees in Everything I Never Told You or Jonathan Franzen’s Lamperts in The Corrections, where the percolated failings of the parents — and the stress fractures of their marriage — have reverberating effects throughout the lives of their children. If East of Eden represents an essential parable of American Genesis, then The Children’s Crusade is the complication of that parable and its strict morality. As the land has grown, so has its people, their lives replete with a dinner table trauma of harsh words and youthful brawls and spoiled clothes that hang about their days like the scent of ozone before a storm. Bill is the kind, conflict-avoidant, and well-meaning patriarch whose axioms of “carry on” and “children deserve care” are interpreted by each of his children differently. Penny is the manic mother fraught with unassailable dreams of her own artistry. Robert is the duty-bound and approval-driven eldest son, Rebecca the thoughtful and calculating daughter, Ryan the overly loving and close-minded middle child, and James the damaged and tossed aside youngest of the family. Initially, the “crusade” of The Children’s Crusade is a foolish list, made by the children, of activities that might please their mother and engender her doting love. These are certainly pithy descriptions compared to the deep, sprawling mental landscapes that each of the children explores in their joint desperation to understand the loss of their childhood home, land, and the weighty portent of their father’s oak tree. The land means so much to the four of them because it’s where they have rooted their love and history, and in this singular love and necessity for the California earth, the Trasks and the Blairs are not so different.
Each of the four siblings narrates a section of the novel as adults looking back, with interluding scenes from their communal upbringing. The psychological weight is heavy and palpable for each child, such as Robert, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a doctor. Although Robert is well-established in his mid-40s, all of his decisions are weighed against his father’s imagined approval of him and his work. Often, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, or James try to puzzle over their distant childhood memories in an attempt to piece together how they came to where they are in their lives. For the most troubled child, James, the turmoil of growing up focuses on his dire opposition to his mother, keying on one supremely traumatic moment surrounding his favorite stuffed animal that forms his “rocklike” opposition to her and results in them not speaking for more than a decade. For the Blairs, the land has been long conquered, leaving only the rolling hills of their own hearts and minds to plow through and build upon.
Throughout The Children’s Crusade, Packer lets emotion do the heavy lifting, leaving the writing itself to snake a methodical trail about the characters, such as when Bill is talking to Robert. “As he spoke, his face changed around his eyes and mouth, as if love lived in particular regions of the skin, and Robert felt his own face grow warm.” Packer’s terse words ride high on this ripe emotion to the point of exhaustion, feeling each moment so deeply and fully on behalf of each child to the depth of minutiae. The story itself swings like a pendulum, with wandering interstitial and omniscient scenes of a summertime party, a family dinner, or a teenage birthday, filling in the thoughts of whichever family member is closest, even latching onto significant others, with such sudden leapfrogging that at times the cacophony of thoughts becomes oppressive. Between these are the children themselves, grown and worried adults now. In these passages, Packer shows the reach of her creation in the awful nuance of the fraught and doubtful adults in the fullness of their lives: Robert with his self-imposed mantel of pater familias, Rebecca with her thoughtful and oppressive problem-solving, Ryan with his burden of endless and unconditional love, and James with his rootless wanderlust — all of it so painfully real and confessional.
In East of Eden, Cathy is an evil and selfishly depraved soul set against her righteous and caring husband, and as a parable, it’s simply a moralizing black-and-white tale baked into the beauty of the Soledad River valley. Yet in The Children’s Crusade, the shift between the children’s monologue and the collective memory pushes the reader into the role of investigative psychoanalyst. Packer is most certainly aware of this, having one of the children, Rebecca, become an introspective psychiatrist whose memory and its distortion is a constant tease in her life, probing what might be real and whether it matters or not. Treading through the mottled family life of the Blairs, Packer pushes you to ask these questions: What is the motivation behind each memory or action? How have these scenes built Robert or Rebecca or Ryan or James into who he or she now is? Why might they be so broken?
The Children’s Crusade, at times, dips into heavy-handed moments, such as having a group of children sit around and discuss their “crusade” to bring their mother back into the fold, but if anything, the emotion and intent is genuine. For all the biblical Cain and Abel navel-gazing of East of Eden, the same hunger runs through Caleb’s urgent desire for his father’s love and approval. For both families, the crux of it is the dire attempt to fit together, with love as both the solvent and connective glue.
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
I don’t remember everything about Slaughterhouse-Five, but I remember that vitamin tonic. Though I read the book maybe 10 years ago, I can still see a dirty, malnourished prisoner of war working in a barely functioning Dresden factory that makes some kind of vitamin tonic for pregnant German women. And one day, starving, that man decides to open a bottle, and puts it to his lips, and tips it back. And what I really remember is how Kurt Vonnegut describes what happens next, how that man, whose name I cannot remember, is transformed, how that elixir hits his belly and then his blood, turning him from mostly dead to something suddenly rather alive, his bones alive, his hair alive, and that’s what I remember, that feeling that you can get from a book, a feeling that sticks with you, when somebody gets what he desperately wants, what he desperately needs.
When I think about my favorite books, I remember how they made me feel, and I remember the food, and sometimes those two feelings get all mixed up. I remember when a girl is hungry and when she eats something. Especially when the girl is hungry and when she eats something.
If you’re at all like me, you have your own, but here are mine.
Hemingway. I’ll start out slow here. Of course there’s the heroic drinking (so many aperitifs and digestifs) but for some reason the drinking does not stay with me. The raw-onion sandwiches in For Whom the Bell Tolls, however, I remember those. I can see the American bridge-destroyer crunching away on his raw-onion sandwich, the Spanish partisans drop-jawed and incredulous. Not that I have any particular love for a hunk of onion between bread, but I’ve got this in my head now: the snap, the pungent kick in the tongue, the sinuses suddenly supercharged.
And there’s that staple of 12th-grade English, The Old Man and the Sea. While Santiago is nearly killing himself by fighting the big fish, he—effortlessly, in my head—catches a second fish, a little one, dismantles it, and eats the flesh in ragged, torn hunks. I remember Santiago wishing he had some salt. When I read that book, I had not yet eaten sushi but I’ve eaten it since, and so I can verify that salt, with that raw fish, would have been good.
The Grapes of Wrath. Everybody’s hungry in this one. When the Joad family is traveling west, at some point they find themselves in a peach orchard. Everyone helps picking the peaches, and the kids pick some and devour some, and there are stomachaches, and finally an adult says, hey, you can’t make it on peaches alone. Earlier in the book, someone slaughters a hog and, rather than share, tries to eat the whole thing by himself, which is a mean thing to do. And of course I remember, as you do, that the old man, at the end, drinks human breast milk because that’s all there is and that it keeps him alive, and that’s not mean or not-mean but instead a whole other kind of thing that Steinbeck is doing there.
Atonement. I loved this book and I loved it when our man, the lower-class suitor of the upper-class girl, is stuck, with the retreating British army, in Dunkirk, the Nazis on their heels. He’s wounded, or is sick, or both, and he’s sitting with his back against a cold wall, and someone hands him or he produces from his dirty rags the following: a dried French sausage. It’s in McEwan’s novel that I first saw the word for this particular kind of sausage. Say it with me. Saucillon. The sick soldier dies later, and it’s awful, but that sausage he eats, the description of it, that does it for me. His mouth is filled with fat and salt and the taste of something hopeful and he, briefly, lives again. Do you have a saucillon, by chance? I’d like a bite. Full disclosure: I don’t know how to pronounce saucillon.
Stop-Time. It doesn’t matter what food. It could be the case that the simpler, the better. It’s almost certainly true that the more specific, the better. In my favorite memoir, Stop-Time, Frank Conroy describes his teenage self, in 1950s New York, and how he desires, with all of the cells in his body, a lunch so simple and yet so specific that I never could have dreamed it up on my own: an orange soda and a sandwich consisting of a deviled egg between two slices of white bread. That’s it. I’d recommend the book, and the deviled-egg-sandwich scene, to anyone. Do you like it when people in books go from something less than happy to something beyond it, all because they got, finally, what they wanted?
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. And also the bad-sounding food stays with me. What’s the deal with English food? I do not know. One of the older guys in that book, when he goes out, he goes to the same pub and orders the same thing, every time. It’s one of those incredibly English dishes made up of about 17 fried things, eight of them sausages, three of them beans, and the rest mushrooms or else tomatoes so ravaged by heat that they are no longer tomatoes at all but rather only wet sources of fiber. Actually, that doesn’t sound all that bad. I’d eat that plate of food. But I can see the glistening sheen of grease on everything and I can smell the warm, stale beer, and I wish the English didn’t feel the need to fry or else boil all of their vegetables. But, of course, they do. Also, it’s acceptable to make fun of the English, I realize, and it’s especially acceptable to make fun of their food.
Philip Roth. The best description of fruit-eating you’ll see is in Goodbye, Columbus. Fruit, man. Fruit for days. Flesh and stems and peels and juice and skins. Bananas and oranges and apples and pears and, of course, cherries. Also, this book is about sex, or about what you do when you want to have sex but can’t, and I’m reasonably sure the fruit has something to do with that.
Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy. Read that first chapter. Tell me reading about those farmers, very early in the morning, devouring those biscuits, those eggs, that ham, that coffee, doesn’t do something for you, doesn’t make you feel as if you could hoe a field, could do damage to some corn (if indeed it was damage that needed to be done), doesn’t make you want to go out and get that shit fucking done, man. And then read the rest of the book because it’s the kind of novel you want to tell your friends to read, unless they don’t like great books that are easy to read but which stay with you for years and years because they’re beautiful and the best kind of complicated and true.
Angela’s Ashes. Ireland in the 1930s: Not great. Everybody’s so hungry and there’s so little actual food in this story that what little food does show up, you remember it. Our man Frank McCourt goes to an aunt or a cousin or some sort of older lady, who feeds him something small and feeble, maybe a piece of bread. And when he asks for another little bit to eat, she scoffs, is incredulous, says, next you’ll be wanting an egg. And how precious those odd chunks of toffee are, and how you cheer for the little guy as he pops them into his mouth. And how, finally, after pages and pages, he somehow gets his hands on an actual order of fish and chips and he eats and eats and of course he wants more. And, oh, the alcoholic father, after yet another of Frank’s brothers or sisters dies, takes the little casket into the pub for a pint, and it breaks your heart. And how he rests that pint, between drinks, on the casket, and that really breaks your heart. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. I can see the wet ring from that pint of Guinness on the top of that cheap, tiny casket.
Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That.” Though I can’t recall exactly what Didion eats in her great essay about spending one’s 20s, vividly but depressed, in New York, I remember that she is so poor that she uses her father’s credit card for odd little meals at a fancy department store’s fancy lunch counter. Also, gazpacho. Even in the 1960s, New York was the kind of place where you could find gazpacho. And even though cold tomato soup does little to cheer up one of my favorite nonfiction writers, I’m certainly glad she ate it, sad spoonful by sad spoonful. Didion makes gazpacho exotic and sad and weird and I’d like some.
There are many more. But these are the ones I come back to. They pop up, unbidden, while walking, while driving, while eating. Each time, I think: I hope he gets that sandwich. And he does. In my head, he gets that sandwich, every time.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Little known fact: MOOCs (massive open online courses) were invented by Vladimir Nabokov in his campus novel, Pnin, long before Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig launched their “Online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” in 2011.
During a dinner party thrown by the novel’s scholar protagonist, the Russian émigré Timofey Pnin, a Waindell College colleague suggests “lock[ing] up the students in a soundproof cell and eliminat[ing] the lecture room….Phonograph records on every possible subject will be at the isolated student’s disposal.”
When one guest protests that the personality of the professor surely counts for something, another suggests that “One could have Timofey televised.” And thus was the seed of online education planted, to bloom years later with Udacity, edX, and Coursera.
Now the University of Iowa International Writing Program is getting in on the MOOC action. The storied program is conducting its first massive open online course this summer, a six-week, “interactive study of the practice of the writing poetry.” To deliver the first “video session” for its new MOOC, Iowa is piping in the former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, which calls to mind his great line from “Meditations at Lagunitas”: “Longing, we say, because desire is full of/ endless distances.”
I have no doubt that the eloquent and witty Haas can bridge those “endless distances” with his presentation, but the Iowa course got me wondering about how certain fictional professors would fare in the world of online education. Which heroes of those quaint, insular works known as “campus novels” would be most adaptable to the MOOC format? Which—through eccentricity, incompetence, irresponsibility, megalomania, erudition or media savvy—could best attract the teeming hordes of online learners? I present seven candidates.
Timofey Pnin (Pnin): Laundry Hour
Pnin is delighted by the tongue-in-cheek proposal to televise his classes, logical given that he is a bit of an exhibitionist, “brazenly” displaying a bit of calf when crossing his legs in the novel’s opening scene. However, his “mythopoetic” mispronunciations and teaching style make him a less-than-ideal ideal candidate for a MOOC:
…he preferred reading his lectures, his gaze glued to his text, in a slow, monotonous baritone that seemed to climb one of those interminable flights of stairs used by people who dread elevators.
When Pnin does go off-text, he embarks on long digressions, “nostalgic excursions in broken English,” which endlessly amuse him while bemusing his students.
And yet he is not without potential for broader appeal. Perhaps a YouTube channel might be a better fit for Pnin, especially considering the slapstick comedy arising from his “constant war with insensate objects.” I for one would tune in to watch him indulge his “passionate intrigue” with washing machines. Despite being banned from using his landlord’s, he casts “aside all decorum and caution” and tosses anything he can think of into it “just for the joy of watching through that porthole what looked like an endless tumble of dolphins with the staggers.” Viral sensations have been built on flimsier conceits.
William Stone (Stoner): Copulating Verbs
Stoner’s initial dourness eventually gives way to a brightening gloom as the protagonist’s disappointments and suffered indignities mount. When a snide colleague quips that “To Stoner, copulation is restricted to verbs,” he inadvertently gets at the truth behind the mild-mannered Stoner’s long teaching career: it is a love story. The poem that sparks Stoner’s love affair with literature is Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73, whose subject learns “To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
Though the novel begins with a clinical assessment of a man who never rises above Assistant Professor and whom students don’t remember “with any sharpness,” it gradually reveals the intensity of a love felt for people and grammar alike:
It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.
As his mistress and fellow teacher says at one point, “Lust and learning… That’s really all there is, isn’t it?” When taught by Stoner, the Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature has never sounded hotter.
Hank Devereaux (Straight Man): Negotiation Strategies
Richard Russo’s Hank Devereaux, the “physical embodiment of the perversity principle,” seems the most MOOC-ready professor (despite suffering from what his doctor calls a “hysterical prostrate”). Variously known as Lucky Hank or “Judas Peckerwood,” he is the entertaining chair of an English Department at a small college in rural Pennsylvania whose antics make him into something of a local TV personality. His spiritual guide is William of Occam, whose eponymous principle holds that the simplest of competing explanations is the better. The problem for Hank is that he is in the middle of a giant farce, and in farce finding any explanation, however simple, for the multiplying mishaps is itself a tricky proposition.
In his valiant effort to secure an operating budget amidst funding cutbacks and shifting priorities—the campus is breaking ground on a new “Technical Careers Campus”—Hank grasps that he must fight farce with farce. Demonstrating how to be an effective negotiator in front a pool of reporters, he makes the following threat:
Starting Monday, I kill a duck a day until I get a budget. This is a nonnegotiable demand. I want the money on my desk in unmarked bills by Monday morning, or this guy will be soaking in orange sauce and full of cornbread stuffing by Monday night.
That he is wearing a novelty nose, and holding a goose instead of a duck, in no way diminishes the soundness of his strategy in dealing with benighted administrators or tight-fisted legislatures. In terms of professors making spectacles of themselves, Hank is rivaled only by David Kepesh from Philip Roth’s The Breast.
Julian Morrow (The Secret History): “The Terrible Seduction of the Dionysiac Ritual”
Moving from one charismatic professor to another, we encounter Julian Morrow, The Secret History’s Classics professor who encourages his Classics students to embrace their inner godheads:
If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.
Set in a small New England College town, Hampden, Donna Tartt’s novel is about the bad effects of good education—or rather, a supremely, seductively good education. Guided by their brilliant teacher through the mysteries of the Greek canon, Julian’s tutees, beguiled by their teacher’s statements about the self-annihilating pleasures of Dionysian ritual, decide to try it for themselves. The unfortunate local man who is subsequently torn apart by the maddened cohort probably wishes they had majored in economics instead.
A marvelous, “magical talker,” Julian seems like the kind of Nietzschean “super professor” that critics of MOOCs fear they will create. As one of his students writes in his semester evaluation: “How…can I possibly make the Dean of Studies understand that there is a divinity in our midst?” What better spokesman for the bloviating apostles of disruptive online education than a man who can say with a straight face: “I hope we are all ready to leave the phenomenal world and enter into the sublime?”
One reservation is that Julian’s small coterie did serious damage with their orgiastic rites and fits of “telestic madness.” I shudder to think what would happen should Julian’s eloquent lectures inspire not just four students but a massive group to murderous states of Bacchic frenzy.
Jim Dixon (Lucky Jim): Facial Recognition
Jim Dixon, the protagonist of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, is an adjunct seeking to secure a more permanent position from his “incurable evader” of an advisor. As an academic, Jim displays an “enforced avoidance of anything ambitious,” though he does exert an impressive control over his pliable face, pushing himself to put it “through all its permutations of loathing.”
“I’m the sort of person you soon get to the end of,” Dixon admits to the beautiful fiancée of his advisor’s son, an admission belied by the inexhaustible supply of faces he pulls. Grotesque though they may be, they provide a creative outlet and demonstrate a kind of genius, both of which are lacking in his dissertation: The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485. There is Jim’s Eskimo face, his lemon-sucking face, his mandrill face, his Evelyn Waugh face, and an improvised face so savage it doesn’t have a name:
Gripping his tongue between his teeth, he made his cheeks expand into little hemispherical balloons; he forced his upper lip downwards into an idiotic pout; he protruded his chin like the blade of a shovel. Throughout he alternately dilated and crossed his eyes.
When Jim gets the girl and a plum, non-academic job at novel’s end—the luck has to change at some point—he has no corresponding expression. A smile, presumably, would be too pedestrian, so until he has time to settle into his new, sunnier life, he settles for his “Sex Life in Ancient Rome” face, which every online learner should have in his or her repertoire.
Professors Zapp and Swallow (Changing Places): Humiliation on a Massive Scale
It might seem perverse to mention David Lodge’s Changing Places in the context of MOOCs, given that no campus novel emphasizes the effect of physical presence on a campus—Euphoric State (UC Berkeley) or Rummidge (University of Birmingham)—on the personal and intellectual life more clearly than Lodge’s. Morriz Zapp, the author of “five fiendishly clever books” travels to England, while Philip Swallow, the stalled British academic comes to America to understand “American literature for the first time in his life…its prodigality and indecorum, its yea-saying heterogeneity.” The two professors, who begin the novel crossing each other on planes, end up with their respective wives/mistress in a hotel room, the culmination to the various kinds of cultural and sexual exchanges that occur throughout.
Though Zapp can reportedly “make Austen swing,” a better use of his and Swallow’s talents would be in a course on “Humiliation,” the parlor game made famous in Changing Places. In it, players admit to not having read a canonical book. The winning player is the one whose selection has been read by the most number of other players. That is, the winner is the player who has demonstrated the most embarrassing gaps in his or her reading list. (In the novel, a hyper-competitive professor cops to never having read Hamlet; he wins the game but loses his job.)
Picture it: “Humiliation” played on a massive scale, transformed from a parlor game into a sociological survey that could reveal once and for all the most famous text one has not read. What better way to unleash two of the Internet’s greatest powers, crowd sourcing and shame? I’ll start. The Grapes of Wrath. (This is anonymous, right?)
Image via mayeesherr/Flickr
The first time I attended AWP — the annual conference of creative writing programs, literary magazines, pale-skinned mole people (here on out referred to colloquially as “writers”), and, at least this year, a surprising number of people who appeared to have been left over from a plushy convention — it was by accident. It was 2001 and the conference was being held in Palm Springs, my hometown, at a hotel where as a teenager in the 1980s I’d worked by the pool handing out towels and stealing things, and which also hosted my high school’s Senior Prom (theme: Forever Young) and Career Day (theme: Why The Military Might Be a Good Option!). A friend of mine was presenting at the conference, so I figured what the hell, I’d pop in. There was a book fair in the Grand Ballroom — where I’d drunkenly slow-danced to “Eternal Flame” and where I learned about how I might make a damn fine Marine — but by the time I got there, it was half-filled with a bunch of tables representing literary magazines and universities and maybe 200 people were milling about. It had rained earlier in the day and everyone was complaining about that and the small earthquake that had hit. An earthquake in California. Who could imagine?
I hadn’t registered for the conference, because I didn’t know what the hell it was, and because I was just meeting my friend, but no one seemed to notice or care, so I milled around the ballroom until I got bored, which happened swiftly, and then slipped into a mostly empty conference room where people were discussing the latest tech innovations in the literary world, which at the time basically meant people were talking about Webdelsol.com. Eventually I wandered out to the pool area, partially in vain hope of running into my old boss, a gentleman named Tan Man who’d skipped town owing me $167 in suntan lotion sales commission 15 years earlier, and partially to avoid talking any further to a woman who kept trying to get me to buy her chapbook of poetry, and found it completely empty. I went back to the conference center, located the spot where I’d thrown up an entire strawberry wine cooler on a painting some years previous, located my friend and then learned that there was some kind of dance that night and that I could attend if I wanted to. I was informed of the following things: There would be dancing poets. They would likely play “It Takes Two” by Rob Base. A literary lion would end up having regrettable sex with someone half their age.
I opted to go home.
This year, the conference was held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, a complex that apparently was designed to remind people of what it might be like if a SuperMax prison and a Chico’s had a baby, and the book fair was held in three cavernous exhibit halls which were packed, from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day, with well over 10,000 people. There were something like 932 different panels — my favorites: “P.U.P: Poets in Unexpected Places,” which truly is filled with possibilities, but which usually ends up with “not in bed with an undergrad,” and the oddly specific “1963: 50 Years Later”– and there was no wandering into anything if you were unregistered, not with the phalanx of stone-faced security goons who stood guard over the entrances to everything checking lanyards. No roaming bands of thugs were going to walk out of the book fair with a stack of back issues of Brain, Child. Not with their teeth still in their mouth, anyway.
I had a booth at the conference this year, as I have for the last several years, promoting the graduate school in creative writing I’m in charge of, which gave me an excellent chance to interact with the masses. (I also was forced to attend several off-site events with said masses, because once you become a professional writer, and then all of your friends become writers, you’re expected to both give readings and attend other people’s readings, even though not a single person over the age of five likes to be read to for more than about four minutes, and even then it’s a fucking stretch, but the social convention of being a writer suggests that we all are supposed to like these fucking things, and so we all go, and we all complain, and we all text while people are reading, even the people we like, but mostly when the people we don’t know start to read their bad mother poetry [which is any poem that contains the word “mother” in it, because no poem with the word “mother” in it is about how much they love their mothers, because if they loved their mothers, god, they wouldn’t be so fucking sad all the time], well, that’s when it gets vicious.) During these interactions, I was able to glean some important information about the American literary landscape, human behavior, and the secret lives of poets, which I provide to you now as a public service:
1. Whereas last year the young asexual crowd was lousy with bowties and handlebar mustaches, this year it was as if they were all LARPing a cross-over episode of Dr. Who and The Grapes of Wrath: dusty old cardigans, scraggly beards, suspenders, hats, old sport coats, long stares into the great middle distance, a general countenance that suggested the color brown, the far off wisdom that time is just a social construct, a tendency to clutch one’s messenger bag to one’s chest with the lost kind of forlornness that only arrives when one begins to see the raw truth that one’s thesis isn’t going to get approved. The preponderance of strange beards — it was difficult to ascertain if they were countryman beards, hipster beards, or sexual reassignment beards, which complicated the issue — suggested that the Grapes of Wrath were morphing into more of a Game of Thrones vibe in many cases, but also gave the attendees a feral appearance, as if they were already firmly entrenched in the midlist like the rest of us.
2. Apparently in Boston, it’s okay if a reading takes place in a subterranean bar that smells like human fecal matter. I feel this is true because I attended a reading at a subterranean bar that smelled of human fecal matter called the Cantab Lounge. To be fair, it also smelled like an animal of some size — like, maybe a bison — had also died somewhere inside the lounge and then human fecal matter was dumped on top of the poor beast. Oddly, in a room filled with highly perceptive people — if you’re attending a reading, you’re highly perceptive, because dull people wouldn’t even attempt to attend a reading — no one seemed all that concerned by the fact that we were literally standing inside of a toilet, which may have been because some excellent people were actually reading (my friends Rob Roberge and Jillian Lauren both read great, short pieces that involved grave robbing and sex, respectively, which is what readings should always contain: some stuff you’re interested in, delivered in an entertaining fashion, and with haste) or because they were just happy to be inside, since there was a blizzard outside. This also wasn’t a surprise: there’s always a blizzard or some other weather calamity at AWP, and yet every year people are surprised. It doesn’t help that most years the conference is held in a city prone to dreadful weather — Chicago and Washington, D.C. most recently, and soon in Minnesota and, if we’re lucky, maybe Medicine Hat. Frozen climes one can deal with. Hearing someone read an essay that uses the term “I digress” more than once, and each time with too much irony, while being suffocated by the fumes of a rotting animal and human shit, well, it’s a tough pill to swallow.
3. Writers, when forced together in a giant mob of anxiety, tend to act oddly. Like the man named Dan, who looked like a more professorial Gene Wilder, who accosted me about some graduate program that, he wanted me to know, was run by a “real asshole.” I tried to tell him that the program he was talking about had nothing to do with me, nor was it even at the same university, but he didn’t seem to care (or perhaps believe), and instead just continued to rant until I asked him if he recognized that he was acting particularly strange. He said yes. (It should be noted: I didn’t know his name at the time of this interaction, because when he came to accost me, he hid his nametag and when I asked him his name, he refused to tell me. Thankfully, my friend Sean witnessed the whole thing and spent the next several hours tracking the man through the conference and finally was able to procure his business card by using a third party as a decoy. Dan’s business card was even more unusual than he was, since it listed the names of authors he was shepherding toward publishing fame. I’m not even entirely sure it was a real card. I mean, the card was real. I have it here in front of me. But I don’t know if anything else about it was.)
4. If you offer food at your booth, weird people will come and talk to you.
Man: [piling through a bowl of candy] Do you have any bigger candy bars?
Me: No, just the miniatures.
Man: I’d like something to bring home to my children.
Me: So you’re going to bring home a candy bar?
Man: They’ll be excited I got it in Boston.
Me: But you could get a candy bar anywhere.
Man: [still piling through the candy] They love Hershey’s Kisses. Do you mind if I take some Kisses?
Me: I guess.
Man: [starts shoving Hershey’s Kisses into his pockets]
Me: They’re going to melt.
Me: The Kisses. They won’t make it home in your pockets. They’ll melt.
Man: Those aren’t for them. They love Kisses and that reminds me of them. These are for me.
Me: Oh. Okay. That makes perfect sense.
Man: Will you have different candy tomorrow?
Me: We’ll have meats and cheeses tomorrow. Come back. Make a sandwich for your kids.
Man: Oh, I will! Thanks!
Woman: [grabbing a handful of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups] Where is this college?
Woman: Oh. I like California. I’ve never heard of this school. How would I get a job here?
Woman: This school of yours.
Me: It’s not mine.
Woman: I’d love to work there.
Me: Fifteen seconds ago, you didn’t even know the school existed.
Woman: Just because I didn’t know it existed doesn’t mean I don’t want to work there.
5. There comes a time at every AWP conference where you realize that poets are just…different. This time, it was when I stumbled across what appeared to be a Bedouin poetry tent parked adjacent to the booth of the magazines A Public Space and Bomb and the publisher Soho Press. I poked my head into the tent, expecting one of those Bugs Bunny moments where an entire mansion would be hidden inside, but instead I found a darkened room where a man with a suspicious looking mustache was reading poetry to two women. There was a haunted-looking doll in one corner, several pillows that looked to have been stolen from the Sheraton in another, a battered suitcase, some blankets, and a smell that reminded me of dorm sex in the Bay Area circa 1992. The following conversation ensued between me and the gentleman with the mustache:
Me: What are you doing in here?
Mustache: Just reading some poetry to each other.
Me: Oh. Ah. Okay.
Me: [staring, trying to figure out how I’d aged so quickly, how time had become my enemy, how the idea of building a tent sounded pretty cool, actually, but not something I could conceive doing without irony, and then thinking how perhaps these fine people had no need for irony, that I was clearly the fucktard in this equation and that they were doing what made them happy and that my desire to mock was born out of my own shallow sense of self and, fuck, man, I needed to get back home to see a professional about these things]: Well, cool.
It was undeniably…odd…but you know what? It was also awesome. They’d come to a giant conference filled with people so fraught with professional jealousy that they can hardly enter a Barnes & Noble without a handful of Xanax (or, you know, will have professional jealousy in the near future if everything works according to plan) and they’d built a strange tent where they did their thing. It didn’t smell like fecal matter. No one seemed all that concerned about anything other than what they were reading. Not a bad place to hang out, really, with 10,000 of their closest friends.
Image courtesy of the author.
Fiction is the next Detroit. Have you been there? I haven’t, but I’ve read plenty about it, which surely counts for something. Most of it is pretty grim stuff. For that matter, so is most of what you read about the state of contemporary American fiction, what with the demise of publishing and our whole world pixelated and digitized, not to mention Thursday night football and Sunday morning brunch, and just who the hell has the time to read a whole book anyway?
Eulogies for high literature have become a sort of genre of their own. These have sometimes been unrelentingly dour, like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and sometimes amusingly hectoring, like “Where Have All The Mailers Gone?”, a New York Observer essay in which Lee Siegel calls fiction “a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers.” The most famous entry in this genre, though, probably remains Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 essay in Harper’s, “Perchance to Dream,” in which he presciently (and without any of the usual histrionics) predicted what would happen to fiction in the ensuing years: “The institution of writing and reading serious novels is like a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways,” a hulking beast that has outlived its utility. The great city was abandoned, Franzen writes, because “the average man or woman’s entire life is increasingly structured to avoid precisely the kinds of conflicts on which fiction…has always thrived.”
The technologies introduced in the 17 years since Franzen (a native of that most “Middle American” of cities, St. Louis) wrote those words have only exacerbated the situation, letting the soul select and “like” her own society to a previously unimaginable degree. The Internet and all its attendant gewgaws have only further atomized communities, essentially reducing vast swaths of human discourse to the swipes and clicks of a finger. Having abandoned what Franzen called “the depressed literary inner city,” we have pushed out from the suburbs into even more discrete exurbs, our literature as ersatz as the McMansion subdivisions that riddle the landscape, our homes decorated with the inoffensive West Elm trappings of workshop fiction. This is obviously a very tricky place from which to write the sort of sweeping, universal literature that generally gets called art — in fact, given all the forces aligned against you, both cultural and economic, you’d almost have to be a fool to try. Might as well just scroll through your Netflix queue.
In one of those happy accidents of fate, I reread the Franzen essay almost right after having finished Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. Binelli is a native of that much-mourned city, and while he enumerates the many signs of its postwar decline, his is a strangely optimistic narrative of those have stayed or actually moved to Detroit, messianically convinced that emptiness, rubble and neglect are the ingredients of a visionary new city upon the lake. Hipster farmers, European architects, African-American community activists — they have all taken Detroit’s thoroughly confirmed irrelevance as an asset that will let them rebuild as they want, free of both corporate and popular dictates.
That’s what I meant with the fiction-as-Detroit conceit. It is well known that the fortunes of the Motor City declined when, in the postwar era, Japan and Germany started making much better cars than we did. What happened to the American automotive industry some half-century ago is happening today, more or less, to American publishing: declining interest in the product, high legacy costs, cheaper competitors (i.e., ebooks), a workforce slow to adapt. By that logic, literature is dead or dying, doomed to the sort of irrelevance that left Detroit looking like firebombed Dresden.
This, however, does not have me worried. I, for one, am happy to occupy that gutted and forgotten city, much as Franzen was back in 1996, much as some college graduate right now is dreaming of escaping his parents’ basement for a coldwater loft. Literature could not find itself in a better place from which to escape the confining and picayune interiority of the last half-century.
I am going to push this urban metaphor a little further, not for the sake of trying to be clever but because it gets at the very problem facing fiction. The audience for literature today is generally well-off and suburban — these are the people, after all, who have time to think about their profoundly personal problems and read books that purport to solve or at least mirror them. So, then, if the ruined metropolis is the sort of serious fiction that Franzen championed, then the suburbs are the predictable comforts of memoir like Eat, Pray, Love, or its fictional equivalent.
There is something freeing in neglect, in the knowledge that literature has lost its centrality in the American experience, that we neither have new Mailers, nor yearn for them, that we have been abandoned for more the more passive pastures of the digital age. With that knowledge already beneath our skin, why bother trying to attract Starbucks to Gratiot Ave? Let us brew our own, stronger coffee: Joshua Cohen’s Witz; A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven. Elizabeth Gilbert can keep her millions.
I guess what I am calling for is the literary equivalent of “rightsizing,” in the lingo of urban planners. The concept suggests that we reclaim cities by returning them to their core functions, by shedding the sprawl that doomed them in the second half of the 20th century — the same cultural sprawl that has diluted American fiction. Writing of Detroit’s plan to rightsize back in 2010, The Economist was glad that “harsh realities have produced radical thinking,” praising Mayor Dave Bing for recognizing the “painful necessity” that the Detroit of bustling factories could never be again.
In fact, Detroit’s automotive industry has become back: not enough to return the city to its halcyon days, not enough to heal the scars of its decline, but certainly more than doomsayers would have expected a decade ago. It has done so by becoming leaner, smarter, no longer peddling Hummers, thinking of green energy and efficiency as more than just the fads of coastal elites. Publishing will have to do the same thing if it wants to save the literary city. It will likely have to look at smaller presses that are publishing less, but editing more, that are repacking classics in unexpected ways, that are finding ways to be beat Amazon at the ebook game.
And the city will be saved. Because while the city may shrink, it cannot be allowed to die, either — cities, like books, will always attract those who reject more anodyne pastures. The city is where real problems reside, along with the people who suffer from them — and those who, to borrow from Auden, cannot help but act as “an affirming flame.” Today’s suburbanized literature — a dim light bulb — has largely cast aside the sweeping social concerns that animated, say, The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son. A big social novel is like a great old train station; a nice thought, but impractical in this day and age. Who will go there, anyway? A bus shelter will do.
Both of the above novels are Detroit fiction: unruly, uncouth, imperfect, tragic, frequently beautiful, sometimes ugly. Which isn’t to say that Detroit fiction always has to be 600 pages long and cover the entire arc of American history. Henry Miller’s furiously personal Tropic novels are squarely Detroit in their ambition to catalog “the hot lava which was bubbling inside me.” So are the cerebral short stories of Lydia Davis, who gets at the human condition in seven stabbing words: “Heart weeps. Head tries to help heart.” That’s about as far from the suburbs as you can get.
Suburban novels are, in the end, a double illusion: the basic one of fiction, followed by the more poisonous promise that reading, say, Paulo Coelho is really going to improve your life. Their counterpart is the McMansion with its ersatz Tudor accents and assurances that within is everything you could ever needed. This is obviously not true. The world is out there. Detroit awaits.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Driving to Des Moines, Iowa, I picked up a hitchhiker, a young man from San Diego who’d spent the past few months in the Midwest and was traveling to Chicago. On the way to the city, we talked about various things: our points of origin; politics after passing a field plowed into the shape of Mitt Romney’s logo; literature, from Joyce to McCarthy and Dickens, “you should try to serialize your work;” to the troubles of meeting people on the plains. “It’s just so spread out,” he said.
I was coming from Nebraska, a new arrival myself, headed east to visit a friend. Before I came across the hitchhiker, I’d been thinking about two authors local to the area, Tom Drury and David Rhodes, and their works. In particular I was thinking about a scene from Drury’s Hunts in Dreams. In the scene, Charles Darling, a good for nothing from Drury’s earlier The End of Vandalism, sneaks into an old woman’s home to steal an heirloom shotgun and replace it with another. Hearing the woman come down the stairs, Charles takes a seat rather than risk a bullet on his way out. Before he can turn a light on, the woman, Farina, belts him with a coathanger. He tells her who he is, at which point she turns on the light and gives him some ice for his nose. After discussing the shotguns, Charles leaves with both, being decided the rightful owner of the heirloom. Where in the world could this be the end result of a midnight breaking and entering?
Though Drury’s book has no specific location other than a fictional Grouse County, after arriving in Des Moines, I would place my bet on Iowa — Drury was born there, after all. Upon arrival at my friend’s place, I was welcomed into the house in an offhanded sort of way, as if I were a local boy who came by every so often to play and eat whatever was on the counter. This is a peculiar sort of behavior, and it’s something I hadn’t seen since I actually was a child, living in a country cul-de-sac.
I grew up in Ohio. Until grad school, the largest city I’d ever lived in had a meager and falling population of 60,000. I grew up with blue collar people, veterans, farmers, but they were rarely who I read about. The little bit of literature I was exposed to in my early days was not rich in Midwestern ties. The Grapes of Wrath is closest, though Oklahoma is nebulously neither the Midwest nor the South. Aside from the geographically relevant works of Louise Erdrich and Toni Morrison, there wasn’t a whole lot I’d read that I might consider Midwestern. The only real example is from my junior year in college, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which is set in Iowa in the 1950s. Robinson’s Iowa is as close as I’d come to the bucolia of my youth.
This, thankfully, changed once I set out beyond the Midwest itself. While in L.A. and San Francisco respectively, I stumbled on the works of Drury and Rhodes. Drury is famous for a verisimilitude in character and prose so exacting that it seems improbable, while Rhodes has built his books around a certain amount of the preternatural.
In The Last Fair Deal Going Down, Rhodes camps the Sledge family at the rim of an enormous hole in Des Moines. The Sledges, a hard, skilled people, are warned that there is another city within Des Moines, a “lower city,” which is the very pit in their backyard. The hole is covered in fog, emits strange sounds, and no one that enters ever returns. The protagonist, Reuben Sledge, must navigate both cities while witnessing the collapse of his family. Despite the unreal elements, Rhodes spends much of the book analyzing relatively normal people, and much of his later work examines Midwesterners with a bent approaching magical realism. These works are filled with the simple and stoic people I knew, the towns made of one or two intersections that aren’t worth a stoplight.
Then there is the new Midwest of the past few years. Bonnie Jo Campbell, Frank Bill, and Patrick Michael Finn’s Midwest. If the Midwest is not surreal, as with Drury and Rhodes, it is made hyper-real. The Midwest of Bill and Finn is full of the meth-addled and downtrodden. This is, admittedly, a Midwest I know as well as the other. My hometown is the drug capital of a drug-plagued county. The city I lived in before leaving for school was and is desperately poor. For all the Midwest’s evenhandedness, much of it has been embittered by the recession, and the work ethic we’re known for, when without direction, becomes destructive. The literature of this Midwest shows this side of us, the hardened and hungry folk. It forgets, largely, the generous people I know they co-exist with.
There is no disservice being done here, I think. While Drury is caught up in the day to day and Rhodes works unique bildungsromans, the new Midwestern writers pick up on the other side of the tracks. Finn’s collection, From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet, explores the fallen industrial city of Joliet, Illinois, and its stories are as familiar to me as Drury’s. The accounting for this co-existence is a simple one: the Midwest accommodates an enormous amount of difference already. Instead of being a region known for a certain type of character (you cannot, I expect, call an Ohioan to mind as easily as a Californian, a Texan, a New Yorker), in truth the region is not only its own, but also the bridge between these disparate cultures and literatures. The Midwest holds part of both the Rust and Bible Belts, contains flatlands, hills, mountains in the Ozarks, and the beginnings of the Appalachians. I have seen cacti growing on a cliff in Nebraska, where just across a lake are the Sandhills, America’s best grazing land. In the Big Ten Conference alone people are known to bleed entirely different colors.
Midwestern literature rides this fence, trying to act both as its own entity — perhaps why its residents are so often somehow extra-real — and as a bridge between literatures. This is, I think, the answer behind our relative quiet, that and our native stoicism. Our literature often enough hops over into the Western, much of it goes Southern. Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, conversely, sounds Midwestern to my ear, despite taking place in Colorado. In much the same way that the Central Ohioan accent is the American norm — the accent you hear every day on the news — Midwestern literature has perhaps simply been shelved as “American.”
Leaving Iowa just a few nights ago, I was struck by the similarity of the land in the dark to a number of places I had been. In an hour, I saw a field of wind turbines that reminded me of the Texas Panhandle. The shadows of the Loess Hills looked like southeastern Ohio in hour two, and rounding certain corners I expected to be bathed in the gold light that rolls across the horizon in southern California. The Iowa of Drury and Rhodes, the hitchhiker’s bridge across the country. I saw all of that, and after three hours I was home.
As I was taking notes for a new novel recently, I took a moment to consider point of view. Fatigued from working on one manuscript with multiple first-person limited narrators, and then another with two different narrative elements, I thought how simple it would be, how straightforward, to write this next book with an omniscient point of view. I would write a narrator who had no constraints on knowledge, location, tone, even personality. A narrator who could do anything at any time anywhere. It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea how to achieve this.
I looked for omniscience among recent books I had admired and enjoyed. No luck. I found three-handers, like The Help. I found crowd-told narratives, like Colum McCann’s elegant Let The Great World Spin. I found what we might call cocktail-party novels, in which the narrator hovers over one character’s shoulder and then another’s, never alighting for too long before moving on.
On the top layer of my nightstand alone, I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The first is a formal experiment in which alternating narratives tell the same story of a marriage—which is really two different stories, their course determined by just one action. The second two give up on shared perspective altogether, splitting the story into separate books. Old Filth tells his story and The Man in the Wooden Hat tells hers. If the contemporary novel had a philosophy, it would be Let’s Agree To Disagree.
It’s tempting to view this current polyphonic narrative spree as a reflection on our times. Ours is a diverse world, authority is fragmented and shared, communication is spread out among discourses. Given these circumstances, omniscience would seem to be not only impossible but also undesirable—about as appropriate for our culture as carrier pigeons. It’s also tempting to assume that if we’re looking for narrative unity, we have to go back before Modernism. We can tell ourselves it was all fine before Stephen Dedalus and his moo-cow, or before Windham Lewis came along to Blast it all up.
No, if omniscience was what I wanted for my next project, I would have to look back further, to a time when the novel hadn’t succumbed to the fragmentation of the modern world.
But try it. Go back to the Victorians or further back to Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. There’s no omniscience to be found. I suppose I could have spared myself the trouble of a search by looking at James Woods’ How Fiction Works. “So-called omniscience,” he says, “is almost impossible.” It turns out that the narrative unity we’ve been looking for is actually a figment of our imagination. The novel maintains an uneasy relationship with authority—not just now, but from its very beginnings.
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is often credited with being the first novel in the English language, published in 1719. The anxieties attendant on that role are evident in the way the book is structured. Not comfortable claiming to be simply an invention, Crusoe masquerades as a true story, complete with an editor’s preface declaring the book to be “a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.” Defoe originates the James Frey approach to novel-writing, using the pretense of truth as a source of narrative power.
He repeats almost the same phrasing four years later, in Roxana: “The foundation of this is laid in truth of fact, and so the work is not a story, but a history.” The words seem redundant now—truth, fact, foundation, history. It’s a protesting-too-much that speaks to the unsettled nature of what Defoe was doing: telling a made-up story of such length, scope, and maturity at a time when doing so was still a radical enterprise.
But the most interesting expression of the novel’s predicament comes one year before Roxana, in 1722, when Defoe opens Moll Flanders with an excuse: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine.” It’s a clever move. Defoe acknowledges the existence of enough novels that you’d think his position as novelist would be secure (the more the merrier), but he insists that he’s doing something different—and then in the same breath assumes our lack of interest and then preempts it by setting up the other novels as tough competition.
Defoe’s pretense of editors, prefaces, and memorandums is the first stage of what I’ll call the apparatus novel, followed a decade or two later by its close cousin, the epistolary novel. Like its predecessor, the epistolary novel can’t just come out and tell a made-up story—never mind tell one from an all-knowing point of view. In Richardson’s Clarissa especially, the limitations of the individual letter-writers’ points of view create an atmosphere of disturbing isolation. As we read through Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s conflicting accounts, we become the closest thing to an omniscient presence the novel has—except we can’t trust a word of what we’ve read.
So where is today’s omniscience-seeking reader to turn? Dickens, don’t fail me now? It turns out that the Inimitable Boz is no more trustworthy in his narration than Defoe or Richardson or the paragon of manipulative narrators, Tristram Shandy. In fact, Dickens’ narrators jump around all over the place, one minute surveying London from on high, the next deep inside the mind of Little Dorrit, or Nancy, or a jar of jam. Dickens seems to have recognized the paradox of the omniscient point of view: with the ability to be everywhere and know everything comes tremendous limitation. If you’re going to let the furniture do the thinking, you’re going to need the versatility of a mobile and often fragmented narrative stance.
And Dickens is not alone in the 19th century. The Brontës? Practically case studies for first-person narration. Hardy? Maybe, but he hews pretty closely to one protagonist at a time. (Though we do see what’s happening when Gabriel Oak is asleep in Far From the Madding Crowd.) Dickens good friend Wilkie Collins (who famously said the essence of a good book was to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”)? The Moonstone is a perfect example of the apparatus novel, anticipating books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with multiple narrators, various types of discourse, and full of statements that successive narrators correct or undermine.
This isn’t to say that there are no omniscient novels anywhere. Look at Eliot or Tolstoy, to jump cultures, or Austen. Sure, the line on Austen is that she could only write about drawing-room life, but she still writes books in which the narrator knows everything that’s going on in the novel’s world. Pride and Prejudice begins with its famous statement about men, money, and wives, and then easily inhabits the minds of various members of the Bennett family and their acquaintances—not through first-person limited, but through the more detached and stance of a true omniscient narration. Doubtless, readers could come up with other works written from an all-knowing perspective. Friends have suggested books as different as The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude as omni-contenders.
All the same, what seems key about the novel is that what we think of as a historical evolution—or a descent from a unified to a fragmented perspective—isn’t an evolution at all. In fact, the novel has always been insecure. It’s just that the manifestation of its insecurity has changed over time. At the outset, it tried to look like a different sort of artifact, a different kind of physical manuscript almost: the novel masked as a diary or a journal—because, really, who knew what a novel was anyway? Later, seeking to convey more intimate thoughts, it took the form of letters, acting like a novel while pretending to be something else, just in case. This is a genre that constantly hedges against disapproval. It’s like a teenager trying not to look like she’s trying hard to be cool. (Novel, who me? Nah, I’m just a collection of letters. I can’t claim any special insight. Unless you find some, in which case, great.)
Omniscience is something that the novel always aspires for but never quite achieves. It would be nice to have the authority of the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. But we are too tempted by other things, like personality, or form, or the parallax view that is inherent to our existence. This is why, I think, when you ask readers to name an omniscient novel, they name books that they think are omniscient but turn out not to be. Wishful thinking. The omniscient novel is more or less a utopia, using the literal meaning of the word: nowhere.
Appropriately, Thomas More structured Utopia as a kind of fiction, an apparatus novel about a paradise whose exact location he had missed hearing when someone coughed. This was in 1516, two full centuries before Robinson Crusoe, making Utopia a better candidate for First English Novel. But that’s a subject for another day.
[Image credit: Tim]
Hands down, the best book I read all year was Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by CUNY professor Morris Dickstein. This fresh take on literature, film, photography and music exhibits Dickstein’s mastery of the Depression era’s cultural lodestones. He discusses the influences and intricacies of dozens of literary works, including those by John Dos Passos, Erskine Caldwell, Nathanael West, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James T. Farrell, Clifford Odets, James Agee and others, which illustrated several general themes of 30s culture: discovery of the common man; loss of faith in the American system; adoption of communist, socialist or fascist poses; and rejection of the traditional success model that had seduced Americans since colonial times.
Dickstein also reawakens interest in several authors who are largely forgotten today, such as Michael Gold, author of Jews without Money. His discourse on Gold and the “proletarian novel,” which had a brief heyday in the early 1930s, explains how 30s writers returned to sociological subjects explored at the turn of the century by Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane and largely rejected their immediate modernist forbears like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, who focused obsessively on inner psychology. (Dickstein acknowledges that William Faulkner’s work defies such easy categorization, combining dark psychological insights with devastating social portraits.) Emphasis on social criticism intensified throughout the decade, culminating in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, America’s greatest social protest novel. Dickstein is on less-solid footing when describing 30s film and music; calling backstage dramas like A Star Is Born cautionary tales about the perils of success is rather self-evident. But Dickstein makes interesting observations about pre-Code gangster movies starring James Cagney, Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson, which he considers ironic takes on the Horatio Alger myth. Despite this reservation, Dancing in the Dark is a tour de force of criticism, hearkening readers to a not-very-distant time when writers, filmmakers, photographers and musicians concentrated less on ego and self-expression and more on equality and public spiritedness. It is a book that I found utterly engrossing, even unputdownable.
The most interesting book I read in 2009 was an oddball compendium of poems, dialogues and anecdotes by C.A. Conrad titled Advanced Elvis Course. Much of the book describes the poet’s pilgrimage to Graceland, Mecca for Elvis Presley fans. Incidents from Elvis’ life, a tour of his private jet, reflections on his movies, excerpts from Priscilla Presley’s memoir, and, more seriously, a visit to Meditation Garden, his burial site, spawn writings that contemplate Elvis’ multiple dimensions. Many dwell, unsurprisingly, on Elvis’ sex appeal. In “More than Anything,” Conrad wishes he could obtain permission to “spend one night in His bedroom, next to His bed, / naked, dressed in a body condom, / imagining I’m his happy little sperm / … / blissfully shot from / His hardened, kingly shaft.” What makes Elvis Presley such an icon are the many interpretations to which he has been subject; he is so entangled in history and myth that he has become virtually unknowable. Conrad intuits this fact completely, and, like other Elvis watchers, he interprets Elvis in his own way. Conrad imagines Elvis through personal encounters with the man’s songs, history, residence and, not least, fan reaction. Conrad’s genre-defying book is a biography of sorts, telling the story of a simple but supremely talented Mississippi boy who left behind a complicated legacy that curiously endures in his followers’ collective memory.
2009’s funnest book was The Worst Book I Ever Read, an anthology of writings from the Unbearables, a loose confederation of New York poets and writers, edited by Ron Kolm, et al. Several pieces consist of pointed criticisms of classic works or books by modern masters. For example, the Bible receives a harsh rebuke in “Holy Shit! My Gripes with the Bible” by John G. Rodwan, Jr., who calls it “[a]n awful book … a mishmash of so much balderdash that I can only think it is widely revered because it is hardly read.” One-time Unbearable and current Los Angeles Times books editor, David L. Ulin, tears into modern literature’s most sacred cow: “Ulysses is without a doubt the worst important book I’ve ever read,” he says, “a mess of arrogant self-indulgence that refuses to hang together, that has more to do with the ego of its author than with the organic urgency of its plot.” Contemporary authors of dubious merit or unwarranted reputation likewise receive withering abuse. “Joyce Carol Oates is more prolific than a brood sow,” declares Jessica Willis. “She’s always putting out something fat and new. But not new.” In a rant titled “Fuck You, David Sedaris,” Marvin J. Taylor denounces Sedaris’ shallowness, on exhibit in Me Talk Pretty One Day, which “at first appears naughty, but is not threatening, so the dull-minded listeners of NPR can feel self-satisfied that they are sufficiently hip and non-homophobic when they listen to the weaselly voice of Sedaris as he lisps his way through his turgid prose.” Lacking any pretense to civility, the book’s contributors let loose unsparing, profane invective against their targets. The Worst Book I Ever Read says things about authors and books that few readers would dare say out loud, let alone publish, defiantly and hilariously raising a middle finger at literary lameness and publishing torpor.