Why The American Novel Needs To Chill Out And Quiet Down
The Swedes tell us that the American novel is dead, or dying, and I’m beginning to agree with them. I’ve finally picked up Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, the crossover-blockbuster-monolith fictional triumph of 2011 that won the hearts of beach readers and the Pulitzer committee alike. I picked it up yesterday, actually, and finished it in the single-digit hours of this morning. When I put it down, my vision was blurry and my heart lay, un-stirred, in my chest. From beginning to end, my experience with this novel was not unlike a weekend in upstate New York with my insufferable step-grandmother. It complains about everything, it tells you minute details that will be relevant for the moment of the telling and never again, and its insistence that there really is quite a lot going on upstairs, all evidence to the contrary, is increasingly shrill and unconvincing. Goon Squad may well be a triumph of publishing, but it is far from a triumph of literature.
The critic James Wood, in a now-infamous missive penned for The Guardian in 2001, insists that the prospects for “The Great American Social Novel” were severely wounded in the events of 9/11, and that perhaps we are the better for it. Together with the almost-acronym-ready sub-genre mentioned above (G.A.S.N., anybody?), he lumps “hysterical realism” – the fiction of Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith (among tons of others, of course). He is right on many fronts, but his definitions bear some honing eleven years later.
What Wood fails to note – and indeed, what makes his criticism relevant to Goon Squad – is his unwillingness to make the distinction between our growing thirst for accuracy (along with expansiveness, if you will) and the accompanying decline in the value we place on artistry. These Novels of the Twenty-First Century, as I’ll take the liberty of calling the social novels and the hysterically realist novels he discusses, are being held to two completely different sets of standards. My assertion is perhaps best made in microcosm, by way of a continuum. Three novels — Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and Egan’s Goon Squad — stand rigidly and proudly as mile markers.
Let’s begin with White Teeth. Smith dissects the lives of two large London families with care and finesse. We delve into religion and genetic experimentation, sure, and Smith has clearly done her research, but that stuff is not the book’s real concern. Smith uses the trappings of her day – of our world – to shine the faint yet perceptible light of one novel’s insight on questions that resonate infinitely, answering questions of nationality and class and filial duty in the parallax of her dozen or so characters’ perspectives. Smith’s novel, though far-flung, ultimately feels very small. It reaches into your readerly heart and it grabs on; it acknowledges you, it loves you for understanding it. I would venture that readers decades hence will continue to revel in Smith’s shockingly beautiful prose and intricate storytelling. In addition to being expansive, White Teeth is unimaginably beautiful.
But at the end of the day, object though I shall, White Teeth does indeed belong in close categorical proximity to the grand social petri dishes that Franzen pushes at us every ten years. The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen’s two blockbusters so far, are invaluable in their documentation of the last ten years of the last century, and the first ten years of this one. I begrudge Franzen nothing – his prose is up to the task. It is nice to look at, and occasionally beautiful. But there are reasons Franzen has no Pulitzers. He plays a crucial role in American fiction, but it’s a stretch to call what Franzen does art. I look forward to reading his encyclopedic fictional treatment of the next decade’s environmental disasters and American political clusterf-cks and identity crises. But his role in the national dialogue is much like that of the polarizing Michael Moore: these men are ER nurses. The documentarian recognizes the symptoms, but he does not diagnose, he does not prescribe treatment, and he certainly isn’t painting a universal picture.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is an artless White Teeth, an under-observed Freedom. It tackles so many different characters and voices that I lost track; it jumps from the 70s to present day to the future to Naples without letting you catch your breath, introducing secondary characters at each jump-cut and revealing their narrative relevance only halfway through their twenty-page entry. Egan’s novel attempts the intricacy of a novel like White TeethGoon Squad. It feels less constructed and more gathered, lashed together, unwillingly and uncomfortably, into a lumpy mass altogether less than the sum of its parts. It is a novel that has been coerced. (By goons, perhaps? Too far?)
Where Goon Squad attempts thematic coherence, though, again it founders. The leitmotif in White Teeth is, somehow quite subtly, the universality of the teeth in our faces. Smith mentions teeth maybe a dozen times in 450 pages, but the title makes it clear that this is one of her points (as indeed the universality aspect was one of Forster’s), and by the end we’ve put together what she’s getting at. Goon Squad’s approach to this particular aspect of novel-writing, which we all agree in our university creative-writing-department workshops is the mark of a truly literary novel, is the controlling power of music (as far as I can tell). Music, and in one case the silences within it, matters both spiritually and experientially to almost all of Egan’s characters; they crave it, they love it, and in many ways it shapes their lives. This is great as far as it goes, but pulled back from each of its scores of individual contexts, what does it mean? What do we consider when we realize that, yes, music is very very important to this world Egan has written down and projected the future of? Perhaps I’m being dense, but I come up with nil.
So, taking all that and sitting with it for a moment, I can’t help but feel a bit of dismay at the fact that this book just won the premiere annual prize for American fiction. Now, I realize that awards like the Pulitzer aren’t beyond criticism. There was certainly a fine fuss over the competence of the Nobel literature committee’s methods last fall, and it’s got a million times more sway in the world. The implications of the golden medal on Egan’s paperbacks are, as I see it, one of two things.
First: maybe it really was the best American book of the year. I’m not sure what to make of this. I suppose we have bad years, and not everybody shares my particular taste for, you know, elegant prose (although this continually surprises me). More on this after secret option two.
Second: America’s most important literary recognition has become a commercial microphone. This idea deserves an essay of its own, and is not actually as doomsday-terrible as it might sound. Perhaps the Pulitzer committee would prefer to be an advertising apparatus for what Americans want to read, rather than a lofty arbiter. Given the state of the publishing industry, perhaps this is not all bad, because even those of us who abhor sloppy fiction don’t want to see the other half of American bookstores shuttered. The National Book Award has, essentially, given itself over to this model. I would argue that this means the Pulitzer especially needs to stand its ground, but it’s worth noting that they’re not asking me. It also doesn’t appear that they’re actually taking this tack. Did anybody read the 2010 winner, Tinkers, by Paul Harding? I did, and it was devastating. Simple, empathetic, lexically masterful, and the exact opposite of hysterical. Or documentary. It’s a nice counterexample – Americans are still writing more than one kind of book. Bummer than Harding’s variety doesn’t sell, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
So, let me say this. Although there are beautiful counterexamples, James Wood is right. The G.A.S.N. and hysterical realism do “look a little busted.” But there is hope, my friends. I refuse to leave you on a doomsday note like all of the ones above. The antidote, as Wood so deftly prescribes, is the novel that does not try to be large or teach you about quantum physics. It is the small novel that has a small insight, and weaves character with place and social milieu to get across exactly its point, without all the flashy trappings. Remember when I said I’d return to the question of whether Goon Squad was the best book of 2011? Maybe it was. But right at the turn of the new year, just in time for a new round of Pulitzer nominees, came a book that turns all this stuff right up on its head. Hope: A Tragedy, by Shalom Auslander, summarily shushes almost every single concern in the paragraphs before this one. It is a very small novel, about a man who has a couple of problems and a couple of specific ways of dealing with them, until something big happens to him and everyone close to him. Does that sound like a recipe for a novel, or what? Auslander tells us little that is concrete about the world, honestly. The sheer factual knowledge contained within this novel is probably less than one percent of what Freedom offers us, or what Egan sort of tries and fails to bring us. But, as Woods notes, facts will not save us. Distinctive voices – people worth listening to, saying things we’ve never heard before – are what we, in this already hyperactive century, need in our novels. What’s more, what we need desperately, particularly in the landscape whose bleakness seems the only thing we can agree on anymore, is a return to the artistry I dangled near the beginning. Auslander’s novel is stripped-down, but at every paragraph, every formal decoration, it is beautiful. I suppose whether the Pulitzer committee wants to acknowledge that is, in the grander scheme, pretty insignificant. But I, for one, have had enough of the mega-novel. And a girl can dream: Auslander 2012?
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