In its Beginning is its End

“In its Beginning is its End.” The Guardian Weekly, 6 December 2013, p. 39.

What exactly is the problem with the realist novel and why does it persist, asks Andrew Gallix

Literary fiction is dead — or if not dead then finished, according to the Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted writer Lars Iyer, who argues it has become a “repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas” and suggests that novelists should spread the word that “the time for literary novels is over“. But literary fiction has always been dead, has always needed the mould-breaking writing which the Goldsmiths prize celebrates.

Ever since its birth, writers have been suspicious of the novel, reaching for the authenticity of the real — often presenting their work as memoir, à la Robinson Crusoe. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. Ashamed of its frivolity, fiction drapes itself in the gravitas of non-fiction.

If literature needs to be something more than just storytelling, then perhaps one could argue with Maurice Blanchot that it only truly becomes grown-up when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth“, but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree“.

But things were never as simple as that. The original realist novel was no straightforward attempt to describe the world; rather, an attempt to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality already present in literature of the time.

American literary critic Fredric Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of the secularisation of society; a process that ran counter to the “universalising conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels sought to focus on the singular, contingent, and therefore unliterary aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomisation of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of “affects”, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told.

It was a product of the tension between telling and showing; between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the narration of a tale that has happened “once and for all”) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention frequently broke down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognisable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new conventions, sub-genres, and stereotypes, which would have to be deconstructed in turn. With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s idea of capitalist realism, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is fiction’s unsurpassable horizon.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its made-up nature, the novel becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. As essayist Jorge Luis Borges warns, “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete”.

The history of the novel could thus be reinterpreted as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. Don Quixote perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Emma Bovary is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing”, and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and EM Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. Similarly, the realist novel attempted to dissolve whatever smacked of literariness. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists”, and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”.

In the new novel Robbe-Grillet called for, the presence of the world — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Reality is no longer a given, but a taken: something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

The nouveau roman may not be very new any more, but there’s no shortage of writers lining up alongside Iyer to call time on the traditional novel. For David Shields, novels are “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. JM Coetzee is “sick of the well-made novel”, while Zadie Smith says she suffers from “novel-nausea”.

Tim Parks is the latest to confess he shares “Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels,” but he’s less convinced that Shields’s hunger for reality is the answer. Writers such as Beckett or Lydia Davis may have avoided the trap of the traditional novel, he argues, but “this kind of writing…seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form, and there is a limit to the pleasures, comedy and wisdom of negative energy and deconstruction”.

If the novel is dead — always already — as Iyer suggests, then it’ll take more than a dose of reality to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing lying at our feet.

Berg

Review of Berg by Ann Quin. The Irish Times, 9 March 2019, p. 32.

Berg, Ann Quin’s gloriously twisted debut, is the kind of novel Patrick Hamilton or Graham Greene might have composed had they been French existentialists — on acid.

Though couched in a style more reminiscent of Joyce than Sillitoe — one that alchemises the demotic into the poetic — the squalid setting would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary readers. An angry young man pacing the “narrow strip of carpet between wardrobe and bed” in dingy dodgy lodgings had, by 1964, become a shorthand for kitchen-sink drama. The author, who turned to writing after being struck dumb during her Rada audition, never lost her passion for theatricality. Here, she adds Oedipus, Faust, and King Hamlet’s ghost to her repertoire, placing the performance of language centre-stage.

At times — the party where the potted plants seem to come to life, or the Bonfire Night bacchanalia — her prose enters a fugue state that simply takes your breath away. The evocation of what appears to be a near-drowning episode, in the antepenultimate chapter, has at once the hyperreal clarity and baffling opacity of a dream. Such flights of fancy often coincide with the protagonist’s hallucinations, visited by all manner of mythical monsters and even a giant eyeless face that gobbles everything up, including himself: “The sun exploded between his eyes”. The extent to which these apocalyptic visions were connected to Quin’s own bouts of mental illness — prompting her to take her own life by swimming out to sea at the age of 37 — is anyone’s guess.

Setting off a chain reaction of inversions, culminating in the closing coup de théâtre, Alistair Berg changes his name to Greb and moves to Brighton for the sole purpose of killing his absentee father (Nathaniel), who currently resides — with his latest mistress (Judith) — in the adjacent room. The flimsy partition separating them seems almost sentient, swaying and shuddering under the effect of his father’s vigorous lovemaking. It becomes an instantiation of the “shadow screen” (one of two allusions to Plato’s cave) behind which the anti-hero feels trapped, preventing him from bringing anything to fruition.

Berg, who is literally sterile, can never accomplish what he calls the “complete formation,” only “shadows of shapes, half tones thrown on a cinnamon wall”. This sense of alienation is reinforced by the one-sided dialogue: the other characters address him in the first person, but his reactions are always relayed in the third. Berg’s plan to bring down the Matrix through parricide ends in farce as the corpse he thought he had concealed in a rug turns out to be Nathaniel’s ventriloquist’s dummy. (The absence of inverted commas and constant abrupt shifts in point of view give the impression that the novel itself is ventriloquising the different voices — which of course it is.) Breaking the fourth wall will thus only occur in parodic mode, when the protagonist eventually tears down the partition to escape an angry mob at his door.

“If I could only make things bow before the majesty of complete omnipotence”: Berg is the archetypal nerd longing to be an Übermensch. As a child he was a “silly cissy” with masochistic tendencies and castration fantasies, who was sexually abused by his uncle. As an adult he is an inveterate onanist, who swings both ways, and remains a mummy’s boy. He even entertains the idea of offering his father’s corpse to his mother as “the trophy of his triumphant love for her”. “In a Greek play,” he deadpans, “they’d have thought nothing of it.”

He also exacts revenge on Nathaniel by becoming Judith’s lover. This Freudian nightmare climaxes when Berg, wearing Judith’s clothes, is almost raped by his drunken progenitor, who mistakes him for their mistress.

The anti-hero’s delusions of grandeur are symbolised by the hair tonic he sells, which supposedly transforms the user into a “new man”. Berg is a “Pirandello hero” in search of a “play of his own making” in which he would be the “central character” and no longer a mere “understudy”.

“If I wish to create then I must first annihilate,” he argues, sounding every inch like Dostoevsky’s Kirilov. Fancying himself as a “white-robed” alter deus, Berg must “eradicate the past,” and hence his father, in order to forge a new self and universe out of his solipsism.

For Berg, pain “over-rules everything” until it becomes an “inanimate object” to be contemplated. I wonder if that object, for Quin, was this book — a triumph of post-war literature. A classic of social surrealism.

Hazards of Time travel

“We Could Have Had a Haiku Instead of this Doorstop.” Review of Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates. The Irish Times, 22 December 2018, p. 136:

Joyce Carol Oates. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

Can a character develop some degree of awareness — however dim — of the book it inhabits? This preposterous question wormed its way into my mind midway through Hazards of Time Travel, haunting me until the final page.

Joyce Carol Oates’s compendious new novel is set 20 years hence in a derivative dystopian world, replete with the habitual initialisms. The RNAS (Reconstituted North American States) is a one-party regime characterised by a rigid caste system based on 10 ST (Skin Tone) categories, permanent warfare conducted by proxy through “robot-missiles” and, of course, ubiquitous high-tech surveillance of the population. At school, where education is limited to the rote learning of undisputed facts — for example, the inferiority of the average female IQ — students “hold back” so as not to stand out by appearing too clever: “In a True Democracy all individuals are equal — no one is better than anyone else”.

Adriane Strohl, the 17-year-old narrator-protagonist, proves more equal than others and is made to suffer the consequences. Given that her scientist father was already an MI (Marked Individual) due to his association with an SI (Subversive Individual), his own brother, who was “deleted” by DDS (Domestic Drone Strike) — although it later transpires, for no obvious reason, that the execution did not take place — she should perhaps have known better. This, however, is the whole point. We are made to understand, by the third sentence, and then relentlessly throughout the rest of the book, that free will is both her tragic flaw and the mark of her humanity. To think that Oates could have produced a haiku instead of a doorstop!

For having the audacity to enquire what came “before the beginning of Time”, which in the RNAS refers to the “Great Terrorist Attacks of 9/11”, Adriane is charged with “Treason-Spech” and exiled in the past — a sentence that strangely provides an answer to the question for which she is punished. Her molecules are dissolved, teleported, and reconstituted in 1959, before her parents were even born. She is now Mary Ellen Enright, a freshman at Wainscotia University in Wisconsin. As an EI (Exiled Individual) she is not allowed to stray beyond a 10-mile radius from her “epicentre”, or reveal her status to anyone, on threat of instant deletion. Worse still, she is exiled from exile: a microchip planted in her head blocks out memories of her past life, which appear like “shadowy shapes” viewed through a “frosted glass window”. This raises one of the central questions in the novel — “What is a human being except the sum of her memories?” — and triggers an extended metaphor (the Nabokovian glass flowers; the “glassy eyes” of the stuffed animals in the Gothic museum scene) that expresses the totalitarian quality of transparency.

Located in Zone 9, an area which does not appear on any map back in the RNAS, Wainscotia — aka the “Happy Place” — provides ample opportunity for Life on Mars-style culture shocks. Scratch the idyllic surface, and you discover a more sinister world of rampant anti-Semitism and misogyny. Pacifists are hounded out of campus, female students aspire to be Stepford Wives and the university is a “hotbed of mediocrity”. The author, revisiting her own youth, evidently wants to show that the seeds of totalitarianism were sown in the 1950s, but Wainscotia seems so wholesome compared with NAS-23 that the strategy all but backfires.

The moral (human beings are not machines and it is always now) is sophomoric. The narrator’s cloying diary style and intemperate deployment of exclamation marks becomes grating after a while. Soliloquies masquerade as dialogue. The fussy descriptions of minor characters seem to come straight out of a middlebrow potboiler circa 1959. Embarrassing repetitions should have been edited out.

For all its flaws, Oates’s 46th novel is a page-turner, with cliffhanger chapter endings that may well have been written with Netflix in mind. Once Adriane and Ira Wolfman — the dashing assistant psychology professor with a fittingly Freudian name — have failed to flee, following a trail that loops back on itself (as in TV drama The Returned), the novelist loses her (Ariadne’s) thread and the plot begins to unravel.

When the heroine laments her inability to suspend disbelief at the cinema — “The actors were so obviously acting. The film was so obviously a film” — or dismisses the unconvincing “realistic” paintings hanging in the Fine Arts Building, she almost seems to sense that her exile in Wainscotia is but a metaphor for being trapped in this novel.

Male Order

“Male Order.” Review of What We’re Teaching Our Children by Owen Booth. Literary Review, December 2018, pp. 72-73:

To misquote Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born but rather becomes a man. This is the premise of What We’re Teaching Our Sons, a satire, alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, of all those earnest treatises on fatherhood.

Although very accessible, Owen Booth’s debut is as difficult to pin down as the notion of masculinity in an age of female empowerment and gender fluidity. It is a novel with an emotional arc, but one you may also dip into, each chapter being a story unto itself. In fact, it is essentially the same story — sixty-seven variations on dadsplaining — springing from the same template.

The opening sentence of each chapter is invariably ‘We’re teaching our sons about’, followed by the chapter title, which immediately introduces an element of comic repetition. Then comes a précis staking out the territory to be explored. A chapter titled ‘Crime’ begins, ‘We’re teaching our sons about crime. We’re teaching them that crime doesn’t pay, or that mostly it doesn’t pay, or that, in fact, it can sometimes pay quite handsomely’. ‘Drugs’ gets off to a similar start: ‘We’re teaching our sons about drugs. What they do, why people take them, where to find them’.

The dads’ mission to raise ‘a generation of better men’ is undermined by their own confusion and inconsistencies — their compulsion to idealise women, for instance, despite knowing that this raises feminist issues. Much humour is derived from the sons regularly reverting to type (boys will be boys) and puncturing their dads’ politically correct pieties, as well as from their endearing refusal to countenance second best: ‘They’re convinced they’re going to be film stars and astronauts and famous comic book artists. They’re not interested in all the ways we managed to screw up our stupid lives.’

The sins-of-the-fathers trope is introduced early on, when the sons are taken to meet the ‘heartbroken men’. These sad relics from the past, with their beer guts, firearm fetishes and ’embarrassing’ penchants for military or superhero outfits, are prisoners of the patriarchal system they uphold: ‘The fathers of the heartbroken men loom large. Their hard-drinking, angry fathers. And their fathers and their fathers and their fathers before them.’ The grandfathers (to whom a later chapter is devoted) embody a less toxic masculinity, yet their stiff upper lips conceal a sense of loss so deep that it can only be assuaged by railway modelling on a Joycean scale. Having ‘survived wars and fifty-year marriages’, they are now holed up in their attics, where memories are stored away, obsessively reconstructing a childhood scene, right down to the diminutive figures of themselves as little boys, ‘searching desperately through the streets for their own silent, unknowable fathers’. The same formulation recurs in a chapter where, having failed to teach their sons about emotional literacy, the dads end up extolling the virtues of hobbies as a time-honoured means of keeping feelings bottled up. It was ever thus, they explain. This scene takes place on a miniature steam railway operated by middle-aged enthusiasts — ‘all men’ — whose reluctance to share their toy with the public (children in particular) inevitably leads to a confrontation and display of cockmanship.

As this comic tour de force testifies, Booth is a miniaturist. His meticulous craft bears more than a passing resemblance to that of his hobbyists, all those haunted men who seem to pour an excess of emotion into elaborate displacement activities. The novel’s repetitive format and collective narrative voice provide a safety net of impersonality, allowing the tenderest of moments to bloom in the nooks and crannies of its vignettes. In the changing rooms at the swimming pool, for instance, the dads — feeling ‘the terrible responsibility of lost socks, and impending colds’ — try not to contemplate ‘all the upcoming catastrophes’ they will never be able to shield their sons from. In another tale of innocence and experience, the dads tell their lads about the nights they were born, before evoking what was deliberately left unsaid: ‘These are not things we talk about, not even to each other. Especially not to each other. We’re terrified that if we started we wouldn’t know how to stop.’

Phantom Plot

My review of Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language will appear in the FT tomorrow. It was posted on their website today. Here is an extract:

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, Barthes contends that lang­uage, ceasing to be merely instrument­al, “loses its origin” when it enters the fictive realm. A thinly veiled reference to this theory recurs throughout Binet’s novel. The reader’s quest for the narrator’s identity gradually forms a phantom plot that shadows (and even overshadows) the overt whodunnit, sending us on a wild-goose chase. A description of Bayard sitting in a café is interrupted by a parenthetical aside: “Which café? The little details are important for reconstructing the atmosphere, don’t you think?” Pleading ignorance, he (or indeed she) enjoins us, à la Tristram Shandy, to picture the superintendent wherever we so please.

Here, Binet reprises a theme tackled in HHhH, where the author’s stand-in frets over the minutiae of historical reconstitution: the colour of the Nazi security chief’s Mercedes, for instance. Such “little details” are important in fiction as well as history books: they produce what Barthes called the “reality effect”. Highlighting their contingency — why this Latin Quarter café rather than another? — is a ruse by which the narrative voice enhances the reality effect while seemingly undermining it. After all, a fallible storyteller is far more credible than an omniscient one (with the added convenience of allowing Binet to paper over a few gaps in his research).

The strands of the plot are skilfully interwoven through a dual process of fictionalisation of the real and realisation of the fictional. At one stage the narrator observes that it is difficult “to imagine what Julia Kristeva is thinking in 1980”, as though this were not the case with any real-life person at any given moment. A similar statement is later made about one of the fictitious protagonists, about whom anything could be imagined: “We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?”

Or are we? As the plot thickens, Simon feels increasingly “trapped in a novel”: “How do you know you are not living inside a work of fiction? How do you know that you’re real?” This growing ontological crisis — doubtless stemming from Barthes having read the world like a text — sends us back to the opening sentences: “Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so”.

All the Latest

I’ve written a piece about custard-pie activism for the Guardian‘s Comment is Free section. You can read it here. An expanded version of my review of Marc-Edouard Nabe‘s latest novel appeared in 3:AM Magazine. Also in 3:AM, I talk about my summer reading list.