Approaches to Walden

This week, it came time for my students to grapple with Walden and for me to help them in their efforts — as if I had any idea how to teach the book. Thoreau veers so wildly from subject to subject and offers so little in the way of segue or causality between one chapter and the next that, at first, Walden seems to be simply a collection of essays in the manner of Emerson, linked together by the personal sentiments of Thoreau himself and by their shared site of inspiration on the banks of Walden Pond but not by logic or rhetoric or any other identifiably literary qualities. But then, as I re-read Walden in preparation for class discussions, I returned to and reconsidered Thoreau’s encounter with the loon in the chapter entitled “Brute Neighbors”: Continue reading Approaches to Walden

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A Lover of Storms

Curled in a low peach limb the old man watched the midmorning sun blinding on the squat metal tank that topped the mountain. He had found some peaches, although the orchard went to ruin twenty years before when the fruit had come so thick and no one to pick it that at night the overborne branches cracking sounded in the valley like distant storms raging. The old man remembered it that way, for he was a lover of storms.

Cormac McCarthy
The Orchard Keeper

The Aesthetics of a Congealing Artform

In the latest New Yorker, James Wood challenges David Shields on some of his assumptions about the tension between authorial intentions and the representation of reality in fiction:

Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering? … 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.

So even if it’s hard to decide whether the novel can really progress it’s easy to see that it can congeal — that certain novelistic conventions grow steadily more conventional, and lose some of their original power. The French literary theorist Roland Barthes called this “the reality effect.” He was talking specifically about fictional detail (the kind that pretends to be quietly “irrelevant,” like Bob’s mole, in one of my hypothetical examples); his larger argument, made elsewhere in his work, was that realistic fiction, like ideology, tries to palm itself off as the most natural and real of literary modes but is in fact the most artificial and unreal. Barthes is ninety-nine per cent right. His rightness is felt every day by any novelist who sits down to a blank piece of paper or a computer screen and tries, despairingly, to think beyond the familiar grammar of narrative. All this silly machinery of plotting and pacing, this corsetry of chapters and paragraphs, this doxology of dialogue and characterization! Who does not want to explode it, do something truly new, and rouse the implication slumbering in the word “novel”?

Avant-garde anti-realists probably err in assuming that realist novelists are just complacently or venally recycling convention; my experience is that many intelligent novelists are painfully aware of their bated means, their limitations and timidities and uncertainties, and look with writhing admiration at writers like Beckett or Saramago or Bernhard or David Foster Wallace, who seem to have discovered new fictional languages.

Continue reading The Aesthetics of a Congealing Artform

Against Crime Fiction

Can crime fiction be considered literature? Absolutely not, says Jon Fosse:

Death, perhaps literature’s basic concern, … is in crime fiction made into a kind of puzzle which can be solved. Death is made safe by being looked at as something which might well not exist, if it wasn’t for a murder, and then is reduced further by making this murder, death, into a puzzle to be solved. And which will be solved. … Literature is writing so strong that one sees life as something else after meeting it. It has to do with the uniqueness in every human being, and with this truth: the most unique is the most universal. Crime fiction is the opposite, to see life as the same all the time and feel safe in one’s lie. It’s pornography of death, and much less honest than the pornography which has to do with the beginning of life.

It’s a subtle, intriguing argument, but open to easy objections: Jonathan Buckley’s So He Takes the Dog, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country all spring to mind as obvious exceptions to Fosse’s rule. Following his full remarks at the ReadySteadyBook blog, commenters have already listed some other exceptions.