Declaring the novel dead has been a kind of parlor game in the literary world for a century. Every now and then a prominent critic will proclaim anew that fiction as we know it is finished and offer a vision of what’s to come. A few years ago Lee Siegel did the honors with a New York Observer op-ed that argued contemporary fiction is culturally irrelevant, hermetic, and crassly commercial.
As the Wall Street Journal’s Cynthia Crossen noted a few months ago, in 1902 it was Jules Verne proclaiming the novel’s demise—because of daily newspapers, of all things: “Newspaper writers have learned to color everyday events so well that to read them will give posterity a truer picture than the historic or descriptive novel could do.”
Verne’s prophecy might seem dated—especially since the daily newspaper itself is dying—but his comment demonstrates how we’ve always been a little uncertain about the place and purpose of modern fiction. Contemporary novelists, one could argue, are hopelessly competing for the attention of readers who are addicted to social media and overloaded with information. So the novel is, once again, doomed.
But not really. Far from being doomed or irrelevant, the novel remains the best medium for understanding and exploring human experience. That’s the thrust, anyway, of a collection of essays published last year, The Good of the Novel, which examines thirteen notable Anglophone novels of the past thirty years. Each chapter is a long review-essay that considers a different novel on its own merits—an approach that embraces an older and more nuanced view of the novel, and recognizes the importance of the old-style, evaluative literary critic.
Editors Ray Ryan and Liam McIlvanney are concerned with the question of “novelness”—“with what is distinctive and indigenous to the novel form,” a question they claim has been provoked by the emergence of books like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. These highly-acclaimed “hysterical realist” novels exemplify a style marked by complicated or fractured narratives, huge amounts of ancillary data, and high page counts.
But attempts by Wallace, Smith, and many others to recreate the cacophony and confusion of the postmodern age have disappointed because their techniques don’t necessarily improve the art form; they usually get in the way of what is, otherwise, great writing.
The good of the novel, as the editors and contributors to this volume argue, is not so much that it can mimic the aesthetic qualities of its time or comment on cultural trends, but that it can reveal hidden truths about the human condition in ways no other medium can.
The editors take as their starting point Milan Kundera’s claim that, “The sole raison d’ętre of a novel is to discover what only the novel can discover. A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality.” But the novel reveals truth indirectly, relying, as the editors state, “on patterns of imagery, on parallel episodes whose significance is nowhere made explicit but remains unstated, open-ended.” Another way of saying this is that the novel’s truths are incomplete, provisional, and as complicated and multifaceted as a human being.
The kinds of truth novels tell—when they manage to tell truths—have mostly to do with emotion and interiority and therefore with a certain level of mystery. To convey in writing what it’s like to be alive is to transcend the realms of knowledge inhabited by science, journalism, and documentary, even theology and philosophy, and enter into the heart of the mystery of being, where all other forms of knowledge are inadequate. At best, the novel can only suggest a reality that is impossible to describe in categorical terms. But that is much—or at least enough that the best novels are able to shine a light into an unseen world.
It is also pretty damned difficult, and not all the books discussed in this collection are up to the task, which might be part of the point. If successful novels are often mystical and opaque, then evaluating ambitious but unsuccessful novels can sometimes better illuminate the virtues of the form. Examining Martin Amis’ The Information, contributor Jason Cowley quotes a 1990 interview in which Amis described the nineteenth-century British novel as “a superpower novel . . . 800 pages long, about the whole of society.” Amis disparaged the contemporary novel for being short, “sanitized,” and “about the middle classes,” and then claimed he was “trying to get more truthful about what it’s like to be alive right now.” Cowley argues that The Information, a tale of two middle-aged writers that Amis meant to be his own “superpower novel,” was in fact the novel that showed how limited a writer of fiction Amis had always been. The book’s fatal flaw—which Cowley claims is present, in varying degrees, in all of Amis’ fiction—is a “failure of imaginative empathy . . . instead of pathos, we have pontification; instead of empathy, we have stylized effect.”
To make up for this failure, Amis chooses themes and settings with obvious pathos and presumptive cultural purchase: corrupt capitalism, nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, the Holocaust, approaching apocalypse. These are meant to make us care about his stories, which are populated by characters who are reduced to being vehicles for style. As a stylist, Amis is talented, but The Information revealed not only the limits of that style but also his inadequacy as an investigator of the human condition. Cowley’s chief complaint is that Amis’ fiction lacks love, that he does not love his characters enough to empathize with them: “You cannot believe in them because their creator does not bestow upon them the gift of autonomous life nor does he want you to believe in them, and if you cannot really believe in them, you cannot care.”
If Amis’ characters cannot reveal important truths about human experience because of their creator’s lack of empathy, Paul Auster’s characters in Leviathan show that sufficient love and concentrated care by the author can bring fictional characters to life. Such characters “imply that, no matter how banal our lives, we all live deep in mystery. That there is only so much we can ever hope to know, even of the people we are closest to, even of ourselves.” So writes Kevin Jackson in one of the collection’s finest essays, on Auster’s 1992 novel Leviathan, whose story concerns a friendship between two American writers and the descent of one of them, Benjamin Sachs, into a strange world of ideology and terrorism.
As a theme, terrorism attracted a number of contemporary novelists, including Don DeLillo, whose Mao II is also, as Jackson notes, about writers and terrorists, although DeLillo comes at the subject in a rather less personal way than Auster. DeLillo’s characters awkwardly pontificate on writing and terrorism: on how the former used to be able to shape culture and society but how the latter now exerts more influence over ideas and attitudes. He comes at his theme rather like Amis does, as a subject for his characters to talk about.
But where DeLillo’s Mao II exists to facilitate academic ruminations on society, Auster writes about political violence not to instruct, but to get at something deeper in the human heart. Nor are terror and violence, in this case, mere plot devices to keep the reader interested.
Leviathan is narrated in the first person by the conspicuously named Peter Aaron, who is writing about his friend Benjamin in memoriam; we learn early on that his friend accidentally blew himself up while making a bomb. A series of disturbing events in Benjamin’s life leads him to “renounce words” and instead “step into the real world” as an eccentric kind of terrorist—one who blows up replicas of the Statue of Liberty. As Jackson explains, one of the difficult tasks for this novel is to create genuine sympathy for Benjamin, a figure whom we discover piecemeal but who is, in the end, an enigma. The facts of his life remain “mysterious, resistant to commentary and narrative,” which is itself a comment on human nature and experience: that we are, in the end, deep mysteries.
The unspeakable and unknowable is also a dominant characteristic of the last novel examined in this volume, John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun. Set near a lake in a remote part of rural Ireland, nothing much happens in McGahern’s acclaimed novel. There’s no obvious themes or chapter divisions, and no attempt by the narrator to explain or analyze the characters. In his essay, editor Ray Ryan argues that in this novel, “Meaning is always secondary to Being.” McGahern takes the reader into a world that can only be understood by participating in the silences and rhythms and repetitions of its inhabitants’ daily lives. What’s important are the mundane details of life, which McGahern evokes in language that elevates them and reveals them as divine. There is, according to Ryan, something liturgical in the way McGahern writes about the rituals of the everyday: “The economy of McGahern’s style, and the layers of being it encodes, provide something more and less than knowledge. It is less a moral vision of how to live than a creed that believes in something holy and still within the ordinary and also something ghostly and numinous beyond it.”
If there is a common theme to these essays, it’s that the good of the novel is bound up in its ability to reveal hidden truths, not by explaining or instructing or creating a hyper-realistic version of reality, but by evoking and suggesting and creating the world as it is, by incarnating and therefore revealing the mysteries of the human heart. And that’s not only a profound good; in our time it’s an indispensible one.
John Daniel Davidson is a freelance writer and journalist whose work has appeared in n+1, The Morning News, The Claremont Review of Books, The Millions, and elsewhere.
“Where Have All the Mailers Gone?” by Lee Siegel, The New York Observer, June 22, 2010
“Is the Novel Dead?” by Cynthia Crossen, The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2012
The Good of the Novel edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan
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