Dispatches | December 06, 2006

In my last blog I mentioned that the serious novel began to get new models in the 1920s.  While there has been a great variety among types of novels over the last century, what James Joyce started and what we’ve been seeing recently among some of the better-known postmodern novelists show surprising similarities. 

Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses concerns the mental experience of three characters in Dublin during a single twenty-four-hour period in 1904.  The novel’s focus floats along on an elaborately constructed magic carpet of techniques — a literary compendium of language experiments and burlesqued prose styles.  Its more obscure chapters require a guide to understand.  Ulysses set the standard for complexity and inwardness, becoming the flagship novel for the twentieth century.  In its wake, the art novel’s focus changed from social to psychological, from realism to art for its own sake, and the ideal novelist became a daring, eccentric artificer. 

American novelist John Clellon Holmes described himself and his novel-writing buddies in New York in the 1940s and ’50s as giving themselves “migraine headaches” trying to stuff their novels with cleverness and irony.  Since that time there have been counter-trends in the art novel, but the Modernist spirit still prevails, with its emphasis on ornate style and idiosyncratic “vision” — the buzzword in literary criticism implying that fiction should refract the elaborate mental singularity of the writer.  Unfortunately, this results in many otherwise promising novels growing soggy with neurotic rumination, casual obsessions, and recherché self-indulgence — in short, whatever happens to be on a novelist’s mind.

Another effect of the Modernist revolution in fiction is that a lot of the best-remembered novelistic characters have tended to live outside the realm of economic or social constraint — fringe characters, restless wanderers, obsessives, borderline personalities.

In more recent novels, the fictional handling of class, social, and economic issues is desultory in the face of a massive emphasis on psychology.  Characters are less social beings than psychological entities, ruminating about boredom, anxiety, authenticity, adjustment to the phases of life, domestic issues, sexuality — all real enough.  Unmoored from a material reality, however, their stories float increasingly far away from the affairs of real people.  

There are notable exceptions.  Several novelists of the last half-century have carried forward the exploration of issues relating to race, ethnicity, and cultural identity, for example. Ralph Ellison, Robert Olen Butler and several post-colonial writers like V.S. Naipaul and Naguib Mahfouz have inquired into the problems of identity, race, and cultural disintegration.  However, most of our best writers simply are not interested in such nitty-gritty subjects.

John Updike’s body of work is instructive in this regard because some of it seems to contradict the opinion.  Updike is an old-fashioned man of letters, accomplished in several genres.  His novels and stories are greatly concerned with domestic subjects such as relationships and the dissatisfactions of lust.  At his least interesting, the 1968 novel Couples, for example, Updike wrote of the unhappy bedroom cavorting of suburbanites living in some apparent economic utopia. 

The Rabbit books, published between 1960 and the ’90s, concern the flawed life of Harry Angstrom from his days as a young star athlete to his old age and death in Florida.  These novels are in the classic tradition in many ways:  Harry faces temptations and problems, he muddles through phases, and he does go through financial ups and downs.  He is a practical man, a flawed all-American Joe.  But finally Harry is less like the factory worker and later businessman he is supposed to be than a faux metaphysical seeker.  In Rabbit Redux, for example, an angry tract against the youth scene of the day, Harry has endless time to dawdle with trying to become hip.  The last novel, Rabbit at Rest, reflects what seems to be Updike’s own embitterment toward old age.  Is this “vision” or is it an author indulging himself in his readiest frustrations? 

Three of the grand stylists of contemporary fiction–Annie Proulx, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo — have written truly big novels.  Reviews of their books are justifiably full of words like “awesome,” “stunning,” “magnificent.”  Yet ordinary, intelligent readers of literature, less concerned about their literary image, are likely to have a hard time puzzling through these showy, style-heavy books.  As these authors turn to abstract, in many cases abstruse, matters — theories of history and aesthetics, eccentric philosophizing, and neurotic anxieties — their work threatens to become a fiction of agoraphobia.

No one is better than DeLillo at writing novels echoing the jargons of different professions.  But DeLillo presents such foppishly polished renderings of mysteriously driven characters wandering among occult significances that one yearns for some plain prose about real people.  Reading Underworld (Scribner’s, 1997) is like listening to a long monologue delivered by an articulate conspiracist at a health food store–beautifully delivered, fascinating, but easy to forget when you finally get away.  Annie Proulx writes of the harsh past in novels like Accordion Crimes (Scribners, 1997), but her style to me at times goes too super slick, and her vision of the American past so obsessed with death that reading the book is like jogging through an unending charnel ground.

For me, Pynchon is the greatest of these three, for several reasons. His best book is still Gravity’s Rainbow, because in addition to the stylistic high flying (and, yes, the paranoia), it is deeply interested in history and theories of history, with ideas that go beyond the merely weird and playful. He writes about WWII in Gravity’s Rainbow, but he also writes about the history of the twentieth century, the Age of Plastics, choosing the German V-2 rocket as the ultimate symbol of the age.  Behind the eccentricity of the book there is an intelligent meditation rendered in brilliant and memorable symbolic moments and images.

Whether I’d say the same about his new thousand-page novel Against the Day I don’t know yet (it’ll take me another couple of months to read it, if I do nothing else), but it doesn’t look promising.  Pynchon’s new book does have a historical basis — covering from 1893 through the outbreak of WWI — but it’s feeling a bit like the Pynchon of Gravity’s Rainbow gone crazier, more bookishly allusive and murky. Pynchon’s best writing has a strange, nearly hidden (sometimes making it all the more powerful) humanity behind the antics.  There’s probably a better way to say this, but Against the Day is feeling a bit too whatever/whenever for the reader to comprehend any kind of coherent intention or even temperament.  

To criticize such writers for not writing in a more comprehensible way about the real concerns of readers may be like criticizing prima ballerinas for not digging ditches.  Yet they are among our best writers, and so I lodge a humble request: turn your talent to something more immediate than paranoia, nihilism, entropy, the collapse of history, inexplicable motivation, and the evils of technology.  You’re losing us.

Speer Morgan