“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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