Still Trying to Make Sense of the Trauma

The texts’ narrative amorphousness and mixed media — what Randall calls “hybrid forms” (3) and what Daniel Davis Wood calls a revival of the avant-garde nouveau Roman post WWII European postmodernism — clearly represent the unsure approach to new ways to make sense of the trauma. The canon of such experimental 9/11 fiction is continually being set by cultural and literary critics.

My remarks on the rebirth of the nouveau roman cited in an MA thesis by Brian J. Phelps.

Responsiveness

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

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. Continue reading

Obscurantism

So much for establishment literary fiction, you’re thinking. But the underground is producing nothing new. In his essay on post-9/11 fiction, critic Daniel Davis Wood rejected the boring old realism of the American novel in favour of the cult of Beckett. He cites the obscurantist writers Tom McCarthy and Gabriel Josipovici as the future of fiction and criticism, and even praises the creepy, moronic and serial self-promoter Lee Rourke. Here is Wood on McCarthy’s Remainder: “a novel that revels in plotlessness, that undermines characterisation, that fetishises stasis, and that does not reflect on social, political and cultural actuality so much as it self-reflects on the limitations of its own ability to reflect on such things.” Wood grants the authority to speak only to people with nothing to say.

Sentiments like this are impossible to understand without the context of the backlash against Victorian conventions in literature (“why should a ‘novel’ have ‘characters’ anyway?”) which in turn was triggered by a leftwing backlash against Enlightenment reason.

Yikes. Max Dunbar grants me far more authority than I can actually claim to grant certain people the authority to speak.

Responses

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.