It’s interesting to note that Tim Parks’ blog posts on the NYRBlog are routinely better than the criticism printed in that paper’s pages. A good example is the pairing of Elaine Blair’s piece on “American Male Novelists” (do we really need another essay on this subject?) versus Parks’ recent blog post on the chattering mind, “by far the main protagonist of twentieth century literature.”
Blair’s piece, the point of which eludes me, seems to have something to do with the self-deprecating way American male authors now write about sex, as though Sam Lipsyte, Gary Shteyngart, and David Foster Wallace somehow represent all American make novelists writing about sex.
Two-thirds of the way through, Blair gets around to something approaching an idea:
I submit that Wallace’s thesis, and its accompanying fears and assumptions about the female reader, is also held by other male novelists, including those mentioned above. When you see the loser-figure in a novel, what you are seeing is a complicated bargain that goes something like this: yes, it is kind of immature and boorish to be thinking about sex all the time and ogling and objectifying women, but this is what we men sometimes do and we have to write about it. We fervently promise, however, to avoid the mistake of the late Updike novels: we will always, always, call our characters out when they’re being self-absorbed jerks and louts. We will make them comically pathetic, and punish them for their infractions a priori by making them undesirable to women, thus anticipating what we imagine will be your judgments, female reader. Then you and I, female reader, can share a laugh at the characters’ expense, and this will bring us closer together and forestall the dreaded possibility of your leaving me.
So men “sometimes” think “all the time” about sex? Would it be too much to ask for the sentences to at least be logically consistent? To say nothing of the fact that male authors belittling their characters for their childish attitudes about sex is hardly a new, or interesting, thing. This is like the literary critical equivalent of smashing an old car with a sledgehammer. There is no hint of nuance here, no effort to penetrate past the most obvious reading of the given books, no indication of any knowledge that there might be much, much more to be said. It’s rather disappointing that the NYRB would publish an essay built around such a dull idea.
Contrast, for instance, Blair’s reading of Houellebecq (whom she compares to the American male novelists) with Ben Jeffery’s in The Point.
Houellebecq would never put a fine point, in the painstaking way of Franzen, on the fact that his hero is benighted when it comes to women. Of course not. Houellebecq’s mode is to shock and provoke, and offending female sensibilities is fair game, but it’s also the least of his ambitions. He is willing—indeed, eager—to be unlikable in order to get under our skin, and therefore make his social criticisms more forcefully than a likable narrator can.
And yet the best reason to read Houellebecq, the one I would give if I were asked, anyway, is that his work produces the scandalously rare impression of being relevant, of connecting to how life is, rather than how it might be if there were more adventures. Pessimism is unfalsifiable, of course, which is what makes it so often insipid. If someone is genuinely determined to look on the gloomy side of life there is no turning them. The “honesty” of a depressive realist is sapping and tedious in that way. All of Houellebecq’s narrators present themselves as hard-headed men willing to speak unpleasant facts (explicitly, in The Possibility of an Island, where Daniel comments: “On the intellectual level I was in reality slightly above average … I was just very honest, and therein lay my distinction; I was, in relation to the current norms of mankind, almost unbelievably honest”), but their stories would be banal if their author weren’t deft enough to make them plausible—that is, realistic.
“Realism” is, to say the least, a bit of a tattered banner in fiction. Part of the mythology of literature is that Serious Novels exist as a weather vane to the age, informed by and informing the mood of the times, simultaneously symptomatic and diagnostic, reflecting the particular concerns of their spot in history and in turn informing the deeper concerns of human life. The “conceptual” difficulty, so to speak, for the modern novel might as well be termed the difficulty of realism. Since at least 1919, when Virginia Woolf published “Modern Fiction,” there has been a loose but persistent consensus among “serious” writers that the world has changed in ways that make Jane Austen-type classic realism inappropriate, so that if you really wanted to be realistic you would paradoxically find the best expression in science fiction or postmodernist aesthetics, or deny the possibility of realism as an achievable or desirable aim (cf. the critic Jerome Klinkowitz: “If the world is absurd, and what passes for reality distressingly unreal, why spend time representing it?”). The reasons for this steady, though now almost itself retro, shift in feeling are much discussed but remain ghoulishly unaltered.
In contrast to Blair, Parks (and Jeffery) have the capacity to identify the important things at stake in a novel that’s worth dissecting, and to take those things apart meaningfully. Reading Parks’ blog post, one has a sense that it is being written for some greater reason than because he needs to fill up space, or because someone asked him to, or because it makes his ego plumper to write it.
In the twentieth century this monstrously heightened consciousness meshes with the swelling background noise of modern life and we have the full-blown performing mind of modernist literature. It starts perhaps in that room where the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Soon Leopold Bloom is diffusing his anxiety about Molly’s betrayal in the shop signs and newspaper advertisements of Dublin. In Mrs Dalloway’s London people muddle thoughts of their private lives with airborne advertisements for toffee, striking clocks, sandwich men, omnibuses, chauffeur-driven celebrities.
Looking back, what surprises how enthusiastically the literary world welcomed this new hero. Prufrock’s mind might be trapped, inept and miserable, but it is wonderfully poetic.
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