Responsiveness

January 30, 2012

Daniel Davis Wood has argued recently that 9/11 demands a break with conventional realism, conventional verisimilitude. Our new reality, Wood claims, demands a new way of acknowledging ‘the irreclaimability of actuality’, and of ‘writ[ing] that irreclaimability into its own aesthetics’. We can understand this in terms of literary responsibility, literary responsiveness: as a continual renegotiation of the contract between fiction and the world. But what happens when literary forms fail? The responsive books of our time are, for me, broken books: books with a kind of auto-immune condition whereby they attack their own literariness.

In a discussion about the future of American writing, Lars Iyer responds once again to my remarks on the rebirth of the nouveau roman from last year.

Circling Back Around

November 25, 2011

When I write literary criticism for publication in an academic journal or a collection of essays, the experience feels like the intellectual equivalent of hauling a boulder to the top of a seaside cliff, watching it plummet over the edge, and then letting it sink, unseen, into the depths. It’s rare that more than a handful of people will ever read a given academic article, and rarer still that any of them will offer a response to it, and rarest of all, in my experience, that any article that might attract attention should have my name attached to it. Occasionally someone will remark on the effort that goes into throwing the boulder, but more often than not the boulder disappears without a trace while I set off in search of another.

No such luck with my most recent article, though, which was published on September 11, 2011, and has since drawn a response from Lars Iyer, author of Spurious, who scores a mention in the article itself. The article, as its publication date suggests, was commissioned as part of a broader academic consideration of American culture in the decade following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. With my general research area being American literature, I was asked to write about the literary legacy of ’9/11.’  The usual suspects sprang to mind – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Falling Man, Netherland, and so on — but rather than trying to find something new to say about these ‘classic’ post-9/11 novels, which invariably leave me underwhelmed, I tried to make the case that critical analyses of ‘post-9/11 literature’ should expand the scope of that term to encompass much more than simply literature about 9/11.

I attempted to bring Spurious into the fold, for reasons too convoluted to summarise here, alongside a few other recent novels including Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and Lee Rourke’s The Canal. I wish I had more space to discuss the particularities of these novels. Given the constraints of the journal format, though, I had to settle for pointing to them as symptoms of the greater literary phenomenon that I did set out to discuss. That phenomenon had to do with the favourable American reception of these three novels and other works like them. Obviously these novels were not written by American authors, but they have benefited immensely from the institutional apparatus of the American literary scene — American publishing houses and critical venues — even as they seem to me to stand opposed to the prevailing mode of American literary responses to 9/11 and its aftermath. In other words, I think they represent something that is essentially what American post-9/11 literature is not, and the fact that they have been warmly received by an American readership suggests to me that many readers are not content with what post-9/11 literature supposedly is. They are a type of post-9/11 literature that is the negative image of literature about 9/11, a type that formally internalises the crisis of 9/11 rather than externalising it for narrative purposes.

I titled the article “Rebirth of the Nouveau Roman” and made the suggestion that these sorts of novels adopt a stance towards what is now called post-9/11 literature which resembles the stance of the mid-twentieth century nouveau romanciers towards the social realism of Balzac, Stendhal, et al. Lars Iyer and his interviewer at 3:AM Magazine, David Winters, have been generous enough to take seriously an article that I wrote in sincere anticipation of a readership of zero, although neither one of them is sold on what I see as a resemblance between the novels mentioned above and the nouveau roman. “Wood,” Lars says of me, “is quite elastic with respect to his notion of the nouveau roman, which seems, for him, to name a free-floating suspicion of realism and a messianic promise for literature.” That’s true to an extent, and I’ll wear the criticism, except to quibble with the words “free-floating” and “messianic.”

The sort of fiction I’m trying to identify here does not exhibit “a free-floating suspicion of realism” in the sense that the work of David Foster Wallace, for instance, exhibited such a suspicion. Its suspicion of realism manifests in a way that is much more contained or constrained, more austere, more obsessive or self-obsessive — one might say, more like the fiction of Alain Robbe-Grillet — than that of the sprawling, discursive, digressive, and self-consciously ‘difficult’ novel. There’s a reason I make no mention of Steven Moore in my article: the sort of fiction I’m trying to identify does exhibit a suspicion of realism, but not all fiction that exhibits such a suspicion is the sort of fiction I’m trying to identify. Nor would I say that this sort of fiction — or any sort of fiction — advances what Lars calls a “messianic promise for literature,” a promise which I presume he sees as the impossible antidote to the situation he sketched out in his recent literary manifesto after the end of literature and manifestos. A promise for literature? Really? Here and now, in this day and age? And a messianic promise at that? No, not a chance: just a brute hope that the literature of circling the drain — Spurious, RemainderThe Canal — can show literature itself how to circle the drain in style.

There’s more to be said on this, of course, and with a little luck I’ll find a chance to say it before the year expires. For now, though, the Lars Iyer interview and manifesto await.

Responses

November 17, 2011

Daniel Davis Wood’s argument is very interesting. He claims that, among American readers in the wake of 9/11, there has been growing dissatisfaction with realism as a credible mode of fiction. This, says Wood, has led to increased interest in novels situated within a European literary tradition which is at best ambivalent to realism. He quotes Michael Rothberg: ‘While American novelists have [...] announced the dawn of a new era following the attacks on New York and Washington D.C., the form of their works does not bear witness to fundamental change’. Flatteringly, Wood selects Spurious, alongside Lee Rourke’s The Canaland Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, as exemplifying a form that does respond to fundamental change. Wood argues that the three of us, British men all, are nouveaux romanciers for our time, and that our work has found a warm transatlantic welcome for that reason.

I am certainly inspired by Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s famous essays calling for a new novel: for a novel to reject anthropomorphism in its presentation of the world; for a novel to deny the primacy of character; for a novel to present things that Robbe-Grillet describes as ‘hard’, as ‘unalterably, eternally present’, as ‘mocking the “meaning” assigned to them’; for a novel to ‘break away from all that is prescribed, conventional and dead’, as Sarraute would have it; a novel to register what she calls the ‘vast, empty stupefaction’ at the world that is appropriate in the wake of the concentration camps. How do W. and Lars spend most of their time but in a state of ‘vast, empty stupefaction’? What else are the damp in Spurious and the rats in Dogma but unalterable and eternally present, mocking any meaning that might be assigned to them? The narrative technique of Spurious and Dogma is intended as a rejection of older forms of character-novel. I want nothing else than Sarraute did: to ‘break away from all that is prescribed, conventional and dead’ in the novel and to ‘turn towards what is free, sincere and alive’.

In this sense, one might certainly recognize features of the nouveau roman in Spurious, as well as in the work of Rourke and McCarthy. And, if Wood is right, our novels resonate with American readers because of these features. But, for me, Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s polemics are remarkable not only for their particular prescriptions for the novel, which remain exhilarating, but also for the very fact that they felt able to prescribe a future for the novel at all. For me, their prescriptions for a new novel can only, in the end, be so many more exhibits in the museum of literature. Their essays belong to an almost-unimaginable past in which such ideas mattered, a past which had a real stake in the future of the novel.

In an interview with David Winters at 3:AM Magazine, Lars Iyer responds generously to my recent remarks on the rebirth of the nouveau roman.

Just a quick note to say it is both the funniest and most despairing thing I’ve read all year, and an attempt to sketch out why I found it even funnier and more despairing than the blog from which it developed. I think the difference in quality has something to do with the difference in form, with the sense of claustrophobic compression which defines the novel but which the blog just cannot generate. I won’t go over the narrative, such as it is, since various summaries already appear in good reviews at The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere. Instead I’ll pick up on a couple of the remarks John Self made when he read the novel in May:

[I]ts genesis [as a blog] shows: the chapters are short, like blogposts, and the consistency of voice and repetition of themes both emphasises and distracts the reader from the fact that there is not much directional plot.

I agree with that, but what I took away from the movement of Lars and W. through these short, repetitive chapters was the polar opposite of what John Self took away from it:

[W.] is relentlessly critical of Lars. … But the lightness of touch, the artfulness in the repetition, means that it sounds not like bullying but an exaggerated, hyperreal version of banter between friends.

I’m with Michael Schapira when he writes that “[t]he levels of depravity and viciousness that W. is able to reach through his assessment of Lars and himself truly merit the exalted categories of cosmic, transcendental, and messianic,” and I’m with him on that point because of how the relationship between Lars and W. is warped by the novel lacking the occasional and continually unfolding nature o the blog. The blog, rather than the novel, leaves me feeling as if I’m reading something closer to “an exaggerated, hyperreal version of banter between friends.” With a brief post here, a long post there, sometimes weeks without any posts and then a few posts in quick succession, the blog suggests that the animating sentiment behind its content is “let me tell you about something W. recently said.” Over time, then, the blog amounts to a piecemeal assemblage of W.’s character via Lars’ reports of the conversations he shares with W. The novel is the inverse. Running close to two hundred pages bound together between two covers, detailing a series of past events without a date stamp in sight, containing W.’s continual attacks against Lars in close proximity to one another, the novel suggests that the animating sentiment behind its content is “let me tell you some things W. said about me when we were together a while ago.” The novel involves much more definition of Lars’ character by W., whose assessments of Lars are later recorded by Lars himself for reasons only Lars can know.

I don’t mean to deny or downplay the artistry behind the content of the blog; I only mean to suggest that with its occasional posts, date-stamped and dispersed across time, each one a minor piece of a massive project that could potentially last as long as the author lives, the form of the blog serves that content differently, and to my mind less successfully, than the form of the novel serves similar content. Corralling the occasional and dispersed content of the blog into a more concentrated form, the novel forces W. to evolve from a petulant buffoon into a monomaniacal tyrant. This evolution in turn forces Lars’ chronicling of W. to evolve from intermittent acts of reportage into a sustained act of fascinated supplication — and the utter inexplicability of that act is what makes Spurious so funny and so despairing at the same time.

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