Lately, it feels my reading has become dilettantish. I read mysteries, historical novels. As always, I read plenty of trashy novels, my guilty pleasure (but increasingly put them down three pages in because of horrific writing). It’s been ages since I posted a book review. And part of it is that good books—really good books—seem to be harder and harder to come by.
I long for the leisurely sprawl of narrative. Instead of paragraph after paragraph of sentences with each word chosen like a gem, I want plot. Instead of prose that drives the attention downward into meaning (okay, naval-gazing), I want something that drives the attention forward. Gone is the overall chronicling of a character’s journey, the white space of their interior landscape. Gone is the idea of narrative, in which there is a point.
Here’s a narrative for you.
About a year and a half ago, I visited my dear friend Maureen in Atlanta. I saw nothing of Atlanta, except the inside of a brew pub and her neighborhood association’s pool, mainly because we stayed up until three and four in the morning bemoaning the state of the world.
Maureen is a fierce person and I mean that as a compliment. She is more savagely intelligent than anyone I know. Wiry and lean, a fast runner, her mind works the same way. She is gloriously prickly. I am fatter and slower—a lot fatter, not much slower. We are both literary curmudgeons; in between savaging Republicans, stupid people, lemmings, and all the people a liberal arts education has trained us to look down on, we whined about the modern novel.
“Therapy has killed the novel,” I said portentously. “Everything is acceptable. There’s no external conflict, or at least nothing overt. The landscape shifts from external to internal, and unless it’s well done, all you can think is that the protagonist needs therapy.”
“And what’s with all the dog novels and memoirs?” she asked. “There’s a whole genre of literature these days around people’s relationships with their pets. What does that say about our society?”
“And it’s so … ugh,” I shuddered. “I don’t know. Vapid.”
“No, you know what the problem is?” she asked. “The problem is that no one knows how to sustain a narrative anymore. “
All of a sudden, light bulbs started going off, even though it was something like two in the morning and we were sitting outside on the deck, everything dark around us except for the dim glow of lights in the kitchen. Crickets chirped. I had just finished reading Michael Cunningham’s latest, and what had struck me most was how old-fashioned the novel had felt. One character, his voice, his journey. The character arc of self-discovery.
“Seriously,” she continued. “Look at all these novels that shift POVs each chapter.”
I don’t know whether Maureen pointing this out was a blessing or a curse. She mentioned it; now I see it everywhere. So will you (blame Maureen). It drives the story forward, but in the most superficial of ways.
And it’s interesting, because the books that do sustain a narrative are almost all genre fiction. Romance, mysteries, historical novels (I’m including them as genre here because what I am talking about above is the novel set in our present), science fiction, fantasy. And oh, all the dystopian novels that are so popular these days.
(I need to insert a fast little rant here: What is with this new term “fiction book”?)
Here’s what I think: Technology has made writing the modern novel harder.
There’s the practical sense, in that technology is changing so rapidly and to insert the devices, sites, and so on that we use daily dates the book almost immediately. Do you have a character talk about a Facebook post? Does he whip out his iPhone? We have a fractious relationship with technology; on the one hand, we rely on it. On the other, we’re just waiting for it to get better. What part of this fast-moving trajectory do we immortalize on paper?
But there’s also a larger, more encompassing sense, too. I think technology is changing the way we think. I try to remind myself that this is not necessarily a bad thing—but the fact remains that there’s so much. So much information, so many voices. So much to wade through. It can be daunting. When we’re online, we don’t read as much as we skim. Friends are on Facebook; we communicate through Twitter. Every news article has a feedback section. There’s a glorious sense of being connected to the entire world, one in which anything is possible. Yet our relationship to all these things and people in the ether are, in many ways, more superficial. And because there’s so damn much of it to get through, those relationships are fractured.
That fracture is evident in the modern novel.
A couple of months ago, I picked up Teju Cole’s Open City after reading stellar reviews. I just couldn’t do it. All I kept thinking was that this is Facebook and its status updates in literary form, self-aggrandizing—and yes, fractured. There are people I respect who loved it. But I, well, I just wanted a story.
It made me feel like a dilettante; apparently, I can’t hang with the big boys. I reread Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai to make myself feel better. Then I reread Norman Rush’s Mating to see if literature is just getting worse. God, that’s a fantastic book.
The other day, I checked out Mark Haddon’s latest. (Confession: Yes it was on my Kindle, which I love.) I didn’t think the curious night in the incident of the dog whatever book was all that great—but it wasn’t bad, and I needed something to read. I just about poked my eyeballs out with a fork 10 percent in. (Bad thing about the Kindle: Can no longer say 20 pages in.) It was paragraph after paragraph of verbless description and one had to guess which of about eight characters it was coming from. You want fractured? There you go. And there I am, just wanting a damn story.
So I reread The Age of Innocence, and then found Love Slave by Jennifer Spiegal, which I thought was really good—but of course it was set in the mid-90s, which in terms of technology was back in the dark ages.
One could, of course, make the argument that art imitates life and that the style of writing reflects the style of our thinking. Yeah, OK, I can go there. But reflecting it in the prose is different than reflecting it in the theme.
And this is what is really interesting to me. What are our themes? Disconnectedness despite on-steroids “connections”? Disillusion with consumerism as we place an order for the latest iPad? An increasing reliance on technology as we subconsciously wait for it to fail?
Yes, all of these things, these paradoxical jumblings, the threaded promise of more, better, faster that wind us to a place we cannot fathom. We do not know where we’re going. We cannot trust that we’ll be okay. Will we be living on a different planet because we’ve ravaged the earth and have too many people? Will machines be running our lives rendering humanity obsolete? No wonder all these dystopian novels are so popular. The only future that most of us can envision—from Margaret Atwood on down—is dire.
Knowing this, how can anyone possibly write about the present meaningfully?
Oh yeah, and we’re all getting dumber and we don’t teach kids how to write.