Where the Truly Audacious Work Lies

So I took the opportunity in my review of Blinding to editorialize a tiny bit about the state of American fiction. My thesis: if you want epic ambition, look overseas.

I don’t think it’s controversial at all to say that in the past decade or so, the great majority of the real shoot-for-the-moon, thrilling novels published in English have appeared in translation. Things life Freedom and The Goldfinch may pack in a lot of pages, but in terms of style, theme, and structure, they’re extremely tame. They’re page-turners that are mean to be plowed through, and if you don’t linger over the prose that’s because there’s little there to linger over. They don’t take risks, and they give their audience that they want.

Here’s a book that does none of that.

Increasingly, the truly audacious novels published in English are not originally written in this language, but are translated into it. Consider the projects that have appeared here in just the past five years: the My Struggle sextet by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, thousands of pages in length and regularly compared to classics of Modernist literature. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, an epic of language, geography, politics, and horror. Parallel Stories by Peter Nádas, over a decade in the making and an attempt to sum up all of postwar Eastern Europe. Mathias Énard’s single-sentence, 500-page novel Zone, telling the 2,000-year history of the Mediterranean. The baroque disasters brought to us by Laszlo Krasznahorkai . . .

The list goes on. These books are not only lengthy and ambitious in their subject matter, but they are also formally challenging and take considerable risks with language: extremely long sentences (some as long as fifty pages or more), the incorporation of arcane terminology, the use of mathematical logic and symbols as a part of the prose. It is no exaggeration to call them the works that are driving the novel forward in the twenty-first century, and they are increasingly being studied by students of writing in the United States. To their ranks must be added Mircea Cărtărescu’s 1,500-page Blinding trilogy, originally published in Romanian across the decade from 1996 to 2007, and the first book of which has been published in English this year in Sean Cotter’s marvelous translation.

Insofar as I comprehend it—insofar as it can be comprehended—the aim of this octopus-like work, which seems to move in several different directions on each page . . .


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Any idea on the schedule for The Body and The Right WIng? Also: have you heard anything about a reprint or new translation of Knausgaard’s first book?

I agree with you about the state of American fiction and I blame the MFA machine (which now begins in middle school) that has come to work a lot like Hollywood. Lots of market research and giving people what they want and it’s all nice and fine. I spent years reading stories for a fiction prize offered by Prairie Lights to the students of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. They all start out pretty much the same, “I’ll never forget the summer I was 12… I’m changed.” That’s the last time they did something other than workshop a story into the ground. Even writers who used to be at least trying to nudge the envelope have consciously broadened their audience to include the book club crowd (think George Saunders and Lydia Davis). I think it’s time to demote MFA fiction to genre with the rest of the predictable, safe, page-turning junk food. It’s frustrating and disappointing but it’s what Americans want. I’m in awe of stats from Iceland and Norway and Romania etc about not only the numbers of books they sell but the quality of their bestsellers. I know that these countries have the population diversity of a college town but still…

Vanessa Place’s ‘La Medusa’ seems like an American authored novel that fits in this category, as does De La Pava’s Naked Singularity. Others?

I think the fireworks may come from the fact that these authors inhabit a space between the modernist and the postmodernist, and that the conversation in Europe is based around the modern. Cartarescu etc. look from the modern perspective – ‘news that stays news’ – but relentlessly pursue it with the doubt of the postmodern. It’s like approaching modernism, but from the point of exploring ‘perception’ rather than ‘reality’; a more introspective form of the modern, perhaps, less societal. (Not to mention the fact that both modernism and this style of writing were forged in the heat of disasters which makes all doubt the point of art, and are often overshadowed by the Spanish Civil War, the fall of communism, the drug wars, and so on. I think America’s position of twentieth-century dominance is more likely to produce ‘systems novelists’ like Pynchon and DeLillo – gigantic systems were needed to maintain this flimsy hegemony, and naturally inspired paranoia. But what hopes for the multipolar twenty-first century world in American fiction?)

I agree with much of this discussion, though I’m not sure where the blame lies. Perhaps it is the MFA program, perhaps not. Does it lie with the marketplace? In some ways I doubt it, especially with the dire reports of people just not reading (though I would argue that reading has always been done by an elite, since universal literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon). I really do not read much contemporary American fiction for this reason: it just really is not good, with a few exceptions, such as Vollmann’s Seven Dreams novels. I think that some of our best writers have actually gone to other media, such as cable TV and film. Charlie Kaufman has written some brilliant screenplays, and I really admire the work of Paul Thomas Anderson.

There is indeed much to admire in the fiction of Central Europe. And not just in the living writers. The past hundred years of history, at a minimum–the shock wave of the First World War(and its catalyst)onward–has produced some great and resonant work. Some of these are just now being translated into English, such as Ernst Weiss’ fabulous Georg Letham, Physician and Murderer.

Henry, it seems a little odd to say that Proust and Kafka and Faulkner were not exploring “perception” rather than “reality,” or that their works were not completely saturated with doubt. There was doubt before postmodernism.

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