The End of Realist Stories

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 November 2013:

The End of Realist Stories

The limitations of mimetic storytelling are ever more apparent, but what should come next is less clear

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter's painting 'Strip' showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter’s painting ‘Strip’ showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

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. For Fredric Jameson, realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance in its narrative in order to kill it off, and turn into its antithesis.

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.

The realist novel was a product of this 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. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of fiction today. 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 looks back at itself in anger; 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 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”.

Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality“. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe”, and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. For his part, the nouveau romancier was convinced that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he 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”. Even the thought of fiction is enough to make Karl Ove Knausgaard “feel nauseous“.

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.

****

Here is a longer, earlier incarnation of this piece:

Fictive Realism

The Goldsmiths Prize, whose first laureate will be announced next month, was launched “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. Hopefully, it will act as an antidote to the blandness of the Booker and the spread of so-called fiction fatigue. Reports of the death of the novel have always been greatly exaggerated, of course, but David Shields clearly struck a chord with his Reality Hunger manifesto. Novels, he claimed — reprising arguments which Robbe-Grillet and John Barth had rehearsed in the 50s and 60s — are “works of nostalgic entertainment,” “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. J. M. Coetzee declared that he, too, was “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings”. Zadie Smith came down with a similar bout of “novel-nausea”. Karl Ove Knausgaard reached a stage where “just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made [him] feel nauseous”. According to Lars Iyer — whose coruscating comedy, Exodus, graces the Goldsmiths shortlist — literary fiction has become “a kind of repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas”. In a recent interview, he even argues that the task of the novelist today is to spread the word that that “the time for literary novels is over”.

According to Nietzsche, the terrible truth about existence was revealed but also beautified in tragedy at its Grecian best. Offered a glimpse into the abyss, the spectator was saved from the temptation to jump by the aesthetic anaesthetic. Likewise in literature, where fact is viewed, obliquely, through fiction. This tension between the Dionysian and Apollonian accounts for some authors’ ambivalence towards the narcotic of narrative: its reassuring reordering of chaos, and entertainment value. 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. This, no doubt, is why so many early novels purported to be authentic documents — frequently memoirs, à la Robinson Crusoe. Ashamed of its frivolous lack of necessity, fiction draped itself in the gravitas of non-fiction. After Maurice Blanchot, one could argue, contrarily, that literature only truly emerges 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”.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its fictive nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, are wary of the consolations of fiction, with their whiff of prelapsarian micturation. They sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete,” warns Borges, in one of his most famous stories. The history of the novel could thus be construed as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. In Don Quixote — arguably the first great novel — the eponymous anti-hero perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Likewise Madame Bovary. Emma 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 E. M. Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. 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”. Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality”. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe,” and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. The nouveau romancier believed, for his part, that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world  — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Although the world is simply there in all its awesome weirdness, 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”.

With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s “capitalist realism“, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is literature’s unsurpassable horizon. The paradox is that the original (real?) realist novel, set out to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality, as Fredric Jameson explains in The Antinomies of Realism. The title of his latest work refers to the conflicted, agonistic nature of this literary trend. Realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance within its belly in order to abort it, and turn into its antithesis.

Uncontentiously, Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of a process of secularisation of society, that ran counter to the “universalizing conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels took on an Adamic quality by focusing on the singular and contingent — aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomization of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified (and literary) “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of affects, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told. The realist novel was the result of this tension between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the telling of a tale that has happened “once and for all” in the preterite tense) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” would be 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 would frequently break down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognizable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new sub-genres and stereotypes which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of the novel today. “A book that does not contain its counterbook”? Sounds like literary fiction to me.

Review of Dogma

This appeared in Bookslut on 5 March 2012 (issue 118):

Dogma by Lars Iyer

For Scheherazade, storytelling cannot end; for Lars Iyer, it cannot begin. Two novels in, and some reviewers are wondering where his trilogy is going, if anywhere. According to Alfred Hickling, in The Guardian, this “lack of direction becomes self-defeating”. He has a point. It is, in fact, the point.

Spurious, last year’s debut, precedes Dogma, its nominal sequel, but it would make little difference if one were to read them in reverse order, simultaneously, or even back to front. Both volumes can be dipped into at random, safe in the knowledge that the very same obsessions and characters will recur, like some trauma-induced repetition compulsion. Readers of Spurious will rediscover Lars and W. — the self-styled “landfill thinkers” — modeled on the author himself and his colleague William Large, two English philosophy lecturers who have both published books on the works of Maurice Blanchot. Their relationship revolves around the cruel but hilarious abuse that W. constantly heaps on Lars, a modus operandi that baffles their North American hosts: “Don’t they understand that it’s the only way we can express affection? It’s a British working class thing, W. told them, but they only looked at us blankly”. Lars is mocked for everything from his lack of style (“No woman would have permitted your vest phase“) to his non-thinking (“‘It’s like Zen,’ says W. ‘Pure absence'”). On the very first page, W. likens the roaring of the sea to his friend’s alleged stupidity: “It’s the sound of unlearning, he says. It’s the sound of Lars, of the chaos that undoes every idea”. They go off on a sparsely-attended lecture tour of the Deep South (“Six bored people, looking at their watches. Did we come all the way for this?”) during which they pontificate over pints of Big Ass Beer, buy souvenir togas in Athens, and are immortalized on the banks of the Mississippi for W.’s Facebook page: “He rides me like a horse. I ride him like a horse. Sal rides both of us, like two horses, with the camera set on automatic”. W. and Lars also attend music festivals, where they neck Plymouth Gin from water bottles, discussing Jandek’s “non-music” (“the ‘non-‘ is not privative”) and Josh T. Pearson’s integrity (“He speaks from inside the burning bush”). They look for religion in the everyday (“‘Are you going religious?’ says Sal. ‘I hate it when you go religious'”) and attempt to step into life like Rosenzweig (“This is where philosophy must begin anew, right here in the pub!”). Most significantly perhaps, they launch their own intellectual movement, the eponymous Dogma: “Dogma was greater than us. Dogma was broader, more generous. Weren’t we only swallows in the updraft? Weren’t we leaves swept up in an autumn storm?”

On the final page, W. asks his companion to be his Boswell, thus providing the trilogy with its creative primal scene. Lars, Dogma‘s narrator, plays the part of “the Delphic Pythia, speaking for the Oracle”: he carries out his duties to the letter, almost completely erasing his own voice from the book. Most of the time, it is W. we hear speaking through Lars. He speaks of Lars, but also for Lars — in his place — as though he were a ventriloquist, but the ventriloquist is himself ventriloquized since Lars is reporting all of this. W. even begins to wonder if Lars has not conjured him up “from a sense of his own failure,” and some reviewers have speculated that he may indeed be a figment of the narrator’s imagination. Lars’s very self-effacement provides a kind of passive (possibly passive-aggressive) resistance to W., simply by letting him express himself fully. One is reminded of that medieval depiction of Socrates taking dictation from Plato, in which Derrida makes out “Plato getting an erection in Socrates’s back” (The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond). Moving on from Lars’s hypothetical erection, there are two explicit references to ventriloquism in Dogma. The second one is clearly attributed to W., and provides a nice instance of dramatic irony: “Our eternal puppet show, says W. Our endless ventriloquy. Who’s speaking through us? Who’s using our voices?” The first reference, however, remains anonymous. W’s external monologue seems to have been completely absorbed, here, by a narrative voice whose origin is no longer clearly Lars: “We were ventriloquised; we spoke, but not with our voices”.

Like its predecessor, Dogma is composed of individual fragments that originated as blog posts on the author’s website. In spite of this episodic pattern, the novel is expertly crafted throughout. A few throwaway remarks about the “famous Poles of Plymouth” in the opening pages segue seamlessly into an evocation of Stroszek; itself forestalling the American lecture tour during which W. and Lars identify with the protagonists of Herzog’s film: “They’d come to escape the past! And what did Bruno find? The dancing chicken, W. says”.

Some of these fragments are arranged in sequences, while others could be shuffled around like the loose pages in Marc Saporta’s book-in-a-box. Structurally, as well as thematically, each stand-alone vignette embodies the hope — ever dashed, but eternally springing — of a radical new departure: “We need a realitätpunkt, W. says. A point of absolute certainty, from which everything could begin. But the only thing of which he can be certain is the eternal crumbling of our foundations, the eternal stop sign of our idiocy”.

The very possibility of starting afresh — of turning over a new leaf, and then another — seems to have vanished, hence the lack of direction; of narrative drive. Spurious never really begins: it opens in medias res. Dogma never really ends, as the final Beckettian sentence testifies: “It’s time to die, says W. But death does not come”. The novel stops and starts; it repeats on itself as though it had binged on Plymouth Gin: “Every day, the same failure”. Lars and W. mooch about in the dead time of stasis, a disjointed time, which is not so much dead, as endlessly dying. “But that’s just it: death doesn’t want us, W. says,” in an earlier passage, “It isn’t our time, and it will never be our time.” Things are forever coming to an end, but the end itself never comes: “The conditions for the end are here, W. says, but not the end itself, not yet…” The two characters are suspended in this liminal state, stupefied by the non-stop inertia of late capitalism, “pushing [their] shopping cart full of Plymouth Gin through the gathering darkness,” biding their time: “The apocalypse is imminent, things are coming to an end, but in the meantime…? It’s always the meantime in the pub, W. says”. And again: “Only the disaster is real, W. says. There is no future. And isn’t that a relief: that there is no future? And meanwhile, his long fall. Meanwhile our long fall through the clouds…” And yet again: “Perhaps this is a great waiting room; this, the time before a dentist’s appointment, when nothing very important happens: we leaf through a magazine, we gaze out of the window … But they’ve forgotten to call our names, haven’t they? They’ve forgotten we are here, in the eternal waiting room”.

And what exactly is this mean limbo time? Even the seemingly gormless narrator has an answer, albeit a second-hand one: “The infinite wearing away, I said, quoting Blanchot. Eternullity, I said, quoting Lefebvre”. “We’re dead men,” W. later concurs, “the walking dead.”

Messianism — that desperate hope, or hopeful despair — lies at the very heart of Dogma. “You need a volume of Rosenzweig with you at all times,” W. explains, producing The Star of Redemption from his trusty man bag aboard a Greyhound bus bound for Memphis (of all places). Back in Britain, he boasts that he is “still reading Rosenzweig, very slowly, in German, every morning” despite failing to “understand a word” of it. He describes himself as “a man of the end who yearns for the beginning,” but beginning and end are but interchangeable opt-outs from the “endless end,” symbolized by the “eternal scratching of the rats” under Lars’s floorboards, or the “endless, remorseless teaching” that is the “wreck of the humanities“. The Mersey Estuary at sunset is likened to “the end of the world” or “the beginning,” as though both times were indeed identical. The desire to be born again is just that: a desire to be born again, to be borne back. W.’s longing for the Apocalypse is thus mirrored by his nostalgia for an idyllic childhood (“Ah, his Canadian years!”), his vision of Lars and himself as “idiot Whitmans” in “blousy shirts” roaming a prelapsarian America, and even his matutinal work routine:

    Four AM; five AM — he’s ready for work; he opens his books, he takes notes as the sky brightens over Stonehouse roofs. He’s there at the inception, at the beginning of everything, even before the pigeons start cooing like maniacs on his window-ledge. He’s up before anyone else, he knows that, but there’s still no chance of thinking. Not a thought has come to him in recent months; not one. He’s stalled, W. says. […] But when wasn’t he stalled? […] No matter how early he gets up, he misses his appointment with thought; no matter how he tries to surprise it by being there before everyone else.

It is never early enough for W. (who believes things started going downhill in the mid-Neolithic); but neither is it ever late enough. Just as the end keeps on ending endlessly, the novel itself keeps on beginning inexorably. In the paradoxical incipit of Grammars of Creation, George Steiner declares that “We have no more beginnings”: here, we have nothing but beginnings, but it comes to the same thing really. One is reminded of W., “looking for the America hidden by America”: “a perpetually new America stretching its limbs in the sun”. Dogma is also constantly in the process of becoming, which is why — for all the talk of exhaustion and Armageddon — it feels so vital and remarkably angst-free. We learn that Lars had once travelled to Patmos, where the Book of Revelation was written, but ended up by accident on Paros, “the party island.” Short of a revelation, the novel turns into a comic celebration.

Each new fragment harbors the potential to disrupt the continuum represented by the (theoretically infinite) succession of paragraphs. This promise of a revolutionary revelation — the achievement of artistic closure — is never fulfilled, and it produces a daisy chain of failed fragments: a compulsion to retread the same ground. W. claims that our reading is “only the shadow of reading, the search for the world-historical importance that reading once had”. Likewise, Dogma is only the shadow of a novel, the search for the world-historical importance that novels once had. It gestures towards the kind of book it could be if novels still mattered; if only it could take itself seriously enough to really get going. At times, this phantom book shines through the pages “like a watermark”.

Roland Barthes famously argued that “to be modern is to know that which is not possible any more”. By this token, Dogma is resolutely modern. Lars and W.’s saving grace is their acute awareness of their limitations; an awareness that can be extended to the book itself: “We know we fall short, desperately short. We know our task is too great for us, but at least we have a sense of it, its greatness”. In a recent interview at Ready Steady Book, Iyer explained that “Kafka’s work transmits a sense of the importance of notions of God, of belief, even as it deprives us of them”. This is precisely what Dogma does for literature. The book’s apparent lack of direction is part of a strategy to sabotage its literariness; to ensure that it does not become another bogus piece of literary fiction.

For the Romantics, the early German Romantics, in particular, a fragment was a synecdoche standing for a larger, ideal work left to the reader’s imagination. What is missing here is not a bigger, better book that could have been, or indeed could still be, written, but one that is no longer possible at all. In Dogma, W. is nagged by the fear that he may already have had his great idea without knowing it. When he finally loses his university job, he is caught unawares, although it is something he had been predicting right from the start: “He had been waiting for the end, W. says, and still the end surprised him”. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, we move from a sense of impending doom to a feeling that the disaster is already behind us; haunting us: “It’s time, W. says. No, it’s after time. It’s too late. We’re living a posthumous life”. In the final pages, Lars is also described as living each day “as though it were the day after the last”.

According to Iyer, who recently wrote an anti-manifesto on the subject, ours is a “literature which comes after literature”. If John Barth (“The Literature of Exhaustion,” 1967) and the High Postmodernists wrote literature’s conclusion, we are now writing its epilogue. Whereas Harold Bloom’s Romantic poets felt “belated” vis-à-vis their illustrious predecessors, we feel belated with regards to literature itself. For us, literature can no longer be “the Thing itself”; it can only be “about the vanished Thing”. From this point of view, Lars Iyer’s work ranks alongside the hauntological novels of Tom McCarthy and Lee Rourke, which excavate the lost futures of literary modernity.