Monthly Archives: November 2013

“Trapped Inside the Novel”?

I’ve been holding on to Tim Parks’ essay, “Trapped Inside the Novel“, published a while ago on the New York Review of Books blog, for a bit now, hoping I’d be able to formulate a more sensible response than, “What he said!” Here’s what I came up with.

Responding to David Shields’ Reality Hunger, Parks wonders how many readers have experienced fatigue about the traditional realist novel — the sense that the “large novel, a work essentially conventional in its structure and brand of realism, that weaves together the lives of its characters over a number of years” is a bit played out. Like Shields, Parks asks whether contemporary life hasn’t changed in ways that render this mode of storytelling “largely irrelevant”.

It seems to me that some of the frustration Parks is expressing is linked to what James Wood called “hysterical realism,” the sort of highly contrived, almost stylized realism of contemporary novels.  Wood’s critique of White Teeth (whether it’s fairly applied to Zadie Smith’s novel or not) argues that in contemporary realist novels, “the existence of vitality is mistaken for the drama of vitality” — that is, authors are so busy devising plots and subplots and parallels and symbols that their work becomes “evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself”.

But Parks is also identifying a deeper issue — it’s not just that “the big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity,” as Woods puts it, but that the form itself may be ill-suited to the way we experience the world:

My problem with the grand traditional novel—or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included—is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering. . . . The variety of stories told in the novel is indeed remarkable, but the tendency to reinforce in the reader the habit of projecting his or her life as a meaningful story, a narrative that will very likely become a trap, leading to inevitable disappointment followed by the much-prized (and I suspect overrated) wisdom of maturity, is nigh on universal. Likewise, and intrinsic to this approach, is the invitation to shift our attention away from the moment, away from any real savoring of present experience, toward the past that brought us to this point and the future that will likely result. The present is allowed to have significance only in so far as it constitutes a position in a story line. Intellect, analysis, and calculation are privileged over sense and immediate perception; the whole mind is pushed toward the unceasing construction of meaning, of narrative intelligibility, of underlying structure, without which life is assumed to be unimaginable or unbearable.

In some regard, this skepticism toward a fixed self, toward conventional trajectories of achievement, was just what Modernist literature was wrestling with a hundred years ago. But obviously writers like Woolf and Joyce weren’t able to entirely solve the problem, as it persists today, both within literature and in daily life. For the Modernists, it was the trauma of WWI that shattered their faith in conventional narrative forms, and I think today it’s a hundred smaller fractures: recession, government shutdown, rape culture, drone strikes, WikiLeaks and PRISM — you name it, the list goes on. In the face of these realities, the idea that we can put our faith in “the unceasing construction of meaning, of narrative intelligibility, of underlying structure” seems almost absurd.Parks isn’t suggesting we smash the system of the realist novel altogether, nor is he proposing some other edifice to be erected in its place. But I agree with his conclusion that, for many people, the way we live our lives today calls into question some of the underlying assumptions and values that come along with traditional novelistic storytelling, and I suspect alternatives will emerge — if they haven’t already. I don’t have any clear sense what they look like, but I have the feeling they’ll be increasingly intertextual, hypertextual, and interstitial.

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Sunday Six

Six sentences for Sunday, November 24:

I didn’t see you again until the first day of school, when you walked onto the bus. You sat down next to me and your left hand closed around my right on the vinyl seat. Your fingers said, Hello, Whiskey, like you’d never left.

I missed you, I told you.

You were smiling, though you were looking past me out the window at the dense green trees that lined your street, never meeting my eye. Of course you did.

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Things I’m Loving

In the style of my friend Kristin‘s Facebook updates, things I’m loving this week:

Long dinners with writer friends, pomegranate juice, Yogi echinacea immune support tea, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix, the color red, and Kristin’s poem “This” in Mount Hope.

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Sunday Six

Six sentences for Sunday, November 17:

The sky behind her is an azure blue, entirely without clouds, and the air around her seems to glow pink. Her eyes, slitted against the bright sun, are colorless cuts across her face. What she is looking at so intently is impossible to tell, only that it is something no one else can see. Her neck is long and seems about to bow under the weight of all the flowers in her hair. Round shoulders give way to soft upper arms and delicate wrists. With a magnifying glass, one can make out a hangnail on the index finger of her left hand where it grips the arm of her throne, her cuticle a raw, red fringe.

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Reading Recommendation: From “Catastrophes,” Breyten Breytenbach

This recommendation comes by way of my friend Ashlie. It’s from Breyten Breytenbach’s Catastrophes, which you can read an excerpt of in Guernica:

Bergen is a city of seagulls and white. It is a colossal sea animal washed up long long ago and now disintegrating bloated and slower than death the seagulls are blowflies hovering continually high above the bony cadaver floating on the wind lamenting through the awful scissors of their beaks plunging to snatch up morsels of meat. Sometimes the bells weep sound rolls over the roofs and back particularly when white snow is powdered over the city the churches the boats are all whitened in cocoons of snow except for the gulls they reside above the snow on the wind. I live in a hollow room and sometimes I have to hide in the corner the squawking birds are squinting through the windows with white eyes. White stems of rain always fall along the thin windows except when it snows and the whiteness becomes more gauzelike the flakes come to convulse on the sills but in summer everything is different and now an inhuman hard white light thumps day and night against the panes. The whole world is white there’s nothing to eat but still strange carbuncles are strewn over the earth’s surface and abruptly burst open and head-nodding white flowers grow the seagulls alight and inspect the flowers with tilted bone-heads.

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The Golden Key Issue 3: Things Unseen

Issue 3 of The Golden Key is available now, either to read online or to download. The theme is Things Unseen, and it features lots of wonderful speculative fiction and poetry. I’m so delighted by this issue, I can’t even tell you. Go check it out now! And if you like it, maybe consider making a donation to help us toward our goal of paying our excellent contributors in the future.

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Reading Recommendation: NANO Fiction Volume 7.1

My dear friend LiAnn Yim has a piece of flash fiction out in NANO Fiction volume 7.1!

LiAnn’s writing never fails to delight and amaze me, and I am so, so excited to see this in print. Besides being my co-editor on The Golden Key and my own ideal reader, she’s also the sharp eye behind Lightning Cake. Congratulations, LiAnn!

Go order a copy now and check out “The River of Discard”! Apparently, they sell out fast so make sure you get your copy before they run out!

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