Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Novel No Longer?

In the March 15 issue of the New Yorker, James Wood wrote a review in which he raised the question of whether the novel can be said to be an evolving form, and if so, whether the more traditional writerly techniques associated with the form are now, in essence, old hat.

Perhaps it is as absurd to talk about progress in literature as it is to talk about progress in electricity—both are natural resources awaiting different forms of activation. The novel is peculiar in this respect, because while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration.

By grammar, I mean the rather lazy stock-in-trade of mainstream realist fiction: the cinematic sweep, followed by the selection of small, telling details (“It was a large room, filled almost entirely by rows of antique computers; there was an odd smell of aftershave and bacon”); the careful mixing of dynamic and habitual detail (“At one of the computers, a man was unhurriedly eating a spring roll; traffic noise pierced the thick, sealed windows; an ambulance yelped by”); the preference for the concrete over the abstract (“She was twenty-nine, but still went home every evening to her mom’s ground-floor apartment in Queens, which doubled by day as a yoga studio”); vivid brevity of character-sketching (“Bob wore a bright-yellow T-shirt that read ‘Got Beer?,’ and had a small mole on his upper lip”); plenty of homely “filler” (“She ordered a beer and a sandwich, sat down at the table, and opened her computer”); more or less orderly access to consciousness and memory (“He lay on the bed and thought with shame of everything that had happened that day”); lucid but allowably lyrical sentences (“From the window, he watched the streetlights flicker on, in amber hesitations”). And this does not even touch on the small change of fictional narrative: how strange it is, when you think about it, that thousands of novels are published every year, in which characters all have different names (whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?), or in which characters quizzically “raise an eyebrow,” and angrily “knit their brows,” or just express themselves in quotation marks and single adverbs (“ ‘You know that’s not fair,’ he said, whiningly”). At this level of convention, there is a shorter distance than one would imagine between, say, “Harriet the Spy” and “Disgrace.”
I am willing to concede the accuracy of his inventory, willing even to extend it by making note of on the rhetorical power of devices as the lengthy inventory in the form of a list, such as the one with which the second paragraph above begins. And I understand that a critic like Wood, who has read God knows how many novels a year for how many years, may well reach a point when everything comes across begins to sound like something he's read before.

But I do not share his impatience or disillusionment with "mainstream realist fiction," and I find that I have little patience for the sort of avant-garde "experimental" writing which jettisons such hackneyed devices as plot, characterization, and the careful accumulation of details, in hopes of becoming The Next New Thing.  On the contrary, it is precisely the fact that the tools are so familiar and the rules of the game so well-defined that allows me to make credible distinctions between "Harriet the Spy" and "Disgrace," or, say,  between Jonathan Franzen and Leo Tolstoy, to whom, incredibly, Franzen has recently been compared in several adulatory recent reviews.

By way of illustration, here is a passage from a book my friend Paula loaned to me recently, The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears. This is a book I have been working my way through slowly and with full gratitude and appreciation for the authors masterly attention to exactly the kinds of narrative mechanics that Wood purports to find tiresome. In fact, I marked this passage as I was reading (and then re-reading) it precisely  because the writing itself gave me so much pleasure:

It was raining lightly and he hurried, crossing the road and putting his foot in a deep puddle that had opened up in the pavement the previous winter and had never been repaired. He stopped and looked down at his soaking foot and sodden shoe, his only decent pair of winter shoes, which he had taken out that morning and checked carefully to make sure their soles were still good. With luck they would last. This would not help them, and he cursed the war, the Germans, Marcel, the city, and the weather equally, for bringing their final disintegration that much closer. Then, more slowly and carefully, looking down at the ground, he walked the last couple hundred meters to his home, standing in the entrance, shaking himself and brushing as much water as possible out of his hair and off his clothes.

He went up the stairs, into his chilly apartment, and even before he switched on the lights he fetched a towel. He stood by the window drying his hair, staring down at the steps of the church of Saint Agricole opposite. It was nearly eight; the doors were open and the last people at evening mass were coming out, each one pausing at the door, looking up at the rain as though they could see where it was all coming from, then hunching down and hurrying away.

Only one person there was not in a rush, standing close by the entrance, faintly illuminated by the light coming out of the open doorway. Julien stiffened. The patience of the way the woman let the rain run down her body rather than trying to find cover. He could see little, but he would have recognized here in any light or any weather.

He ran down the stairs, forgetting his soaking shoe, not taking a coat or umbrella, and ran as quickly as he could across the street, bounding up the steps two at a time.

“Julia!” he called out.

She turned and smiled, and held out her arms to him. When he finally let go he was soaked to the skin once more. (257-8)

I love this passage. I love the specificity of detail in the first two sentences, and how much work Pears is able to get done with such deft, quick strokes: the puddle, the shoe, what Julien's concern for the condition of his shoe manages to suggest about the larger circumstance of his life. The way that the rain becomes not just a weather event but an efficient means of driving Julien's actions (going up the stairs, toweling off, looking out the window), characterizing Julia's state of mind (she's the only one NOT seeking shelter) and finally dramatizing, through Julien's obliviousness to what a moment ago was his greatest concern, what he feels for her. If this whole passage were to be thought of as a sort of writerly performance on the parallel bars, that last line is just a lovely, artful dismount.

Wood says,

I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels.

I say, I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I love stories which are told artfully and which reflect, precisely in their artfulness, the writer's deep concern for what he really cares about. I would hope that that care would extend to his characters, to his reader, and to the careful deployment of what storytelling resources the writer has at his disposal, as well as to the larger questions (Clausen: What kind of world we is this? How we should live in it?) which, as Wood rightly suggests, the novel as a form is uniquely designed to explore.

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