Thursday, March 3, 2016
Where is the 21st-Century Novel?
A 21st-century novel. Sixteen years into this century, we have yet to see one. This fact (and I think it is a fact) seems odd but it probably shouldn't, given that most of the canon's distinctively '20th-century' novels didn't appear until after 1920. The Great Gatsby, Ulysses, The Trial, Mrs. Dalloway, the complete Recherche, The Magic Mountain, The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, The Master and Margarita--none of them was published in book form until the twentieth century was already old enough to drink and drive as recklessly as Daisy Buchanan. Centuries take a couple of decades to get going, to know themselves, to become self-conscious as centuries. In the 19th-century--the earliest one, perhaps, for which this kind of self-consciousness was really an issue--Romanticism didn't become a dominant, defining force until after the fall of Napoleon, and Balzac didn't get seriously to work originating realism until after 1830. Maybe our current century is a new leather jacket that we're still breaking in, feeling the air pockets in its sleeves, hearing the fabric creak when we flex our arms. And meanwhile, as in earlier centuries, our most prominent writers continue producing novels of an earlier time: social realist and postmodernist books that look increasingly, as the century matures, like acts of nostalgia disguised as artistic breakthroughs. On the American scene, we see a highly structured and conformist literature, whether traditionally realist or experimentally postmodern, a literature often at its most conventional in its studied 'unconventionality' (as in the works of those numerous but very minor literary celebrities of recent years who made their already-ephemeral names under the umbrellas of overwhelming influences, most often David Foster Wallace or W. G. Sebald). Literary realism is, of course, an old, old story, sepia-tinted and crinoline-clad, and social realism is an artifact of the Modernism-diluting leftism of the 1930s, another old, old story that looks as moribund as Aschenbach even when tarted up in the cosmetics of fashionable identity politics. These are truisms barely worth repeating, the kind of rhetorical clubs long used by postmodernist partisans to clobber admirers of Joyce Carol Oates and St. John the Updike. Less obvious is the realization that even postmodernism, which once seemed a likely site for an outbreak of the truly new, today looks more like a closed genre, hardly more relevant to current concerns than, say, the sonnet sequence or the epic poem. The last significant and original postmodern novels were published in the 1990s (The Tunnel, Infinite Jest, Mason & Dixon, Underworld), and today, in the retrospect of two decades, that rush of massive novels appears an impressive finale to the fireworks display opened thirty-odd (exceedingly odd) years earlier by Barth's sot-weed, Heller's soldiers, and Pynchon's bennie-fueled profanities. As the old song almost said, We used to love it, but it's all over now... What's next? What's new? Where are we going from here?