Wednesday, December 11, 2013

On Foreign Fiction and Ours

American literary journalism (to the extent that such a beast still exists in our decidedly post-Edmund-Wilsonian America) continues to follow its bizarre ungraven commandment about non-English language fiction: Thou Shalt Admire Only One Foreign Writer at a Time. In recent years this single slot in our national literary consciousness has been filled by W. G. Sebald, then Roberto Bolano, then Javier Marias, then a quartet of Hungarians who slid past faster than bad goulash through a colon (Marai, Esterhazy, Nadas, Krasznahorkai--I ask admirers of these four apocalyptic horsemen (estimable writers all) to pardon my excremental simile), and now the overrated critic James Wood is easing Norway's Karl Ove Knausgaard into the slot. (I haven't read him yet, but his stuff looks potentially interesting, and I've already mis-Englished his funny name to "Charlie Oily Noseguard.") So despite the fact that our intubated, respirator-attached, heart monitor-beeping literary establishment only notices one etranger at a time, this phenomenon still evinces a hunger for foreign fiction. The outlanders give us something that our domestic product fails to provide.

In the case of Sebald, the powerful attraction many American readers and writers feel toward his fiction may be directly comparable to the attraction British writers of a century ago felt for the nineteenth-century Russian novel. Against the comforting, overstuffed palisade of our safe, middle-class literature, these foreign works hurl existential cannonballs. As Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did when read by the Bloomsburyites against the background of Trollope and Bennett, Sebald and Bolano insist upon the importance of the "big questions" in an age when our fiction has become narrow and domesticated. Foreign writers somehow haven't learned to fear the huge themes that invigorated the best American literature of the 19th and 20th centuries: the fundamental matters of existence and its opposite, meaning and meaninglessness, good and/as evil, the absence of the supernatural, the presence of death--themes that can perhaps be encompassed in a single, packed phrase: the terror of nothingness and the wonder of being. In a word (or two), existential anxiety is the quantity missing from our academicized fiction. While American literary fiction focuses on issues and identities (the family, feminism, the environment, minority rights, racism, identity politics), foreign writers such as Sebald, David Grossman, Peter Nadas, Laszlo Krasznahorkai insist upon that Melvillean "little lower layer" that obstinately refuses to be dissolved in the ironic acids of so-called postmodernism. (That last word fires off an extended parenthetical digression: Postmodernism is less 'post' than 'posthaste;' at its most dogmatic, it's a frenzied, hysterical flight from the concerns of Modernism that becomes, in our ivy-covered halls of mirrors, a monstrous parody of Modernist narcissism. Who among writers, after all, was or is more tormentedly self-imprisoned than David Foster Wallace? In an amusing but too-influential essay, he nicknamed Updike, Roth and Mailer--three phallic pillars of American late Modernism--"the Great Male Narcissists." One might reply that Wallace, the So-So Suicidal Solipsist, wasn't much of an improvement upon his elders. My current view of Wallace is that while he wrote some very good stuff (most of it hidden deep inside Infinite Jest), as a writer--that is, as an artist in prose--he rarely approaches the level at which William Vollmann and Annie Proulx comfortably cruise. Nor, it must be said, does his prose compare well with that of Updike, Styron, Roth, Gass, or most of the other Old White Narcs. And now I slam down the closing parenthesis:) After half a century of postmodern American novels, of prurient parody and paranoid pastiche, of mutating metafictions and mutilated meditations, we find ourselves gazing abroad for signs of writers still concerned with those archetypal "modern themes" that the coiner of the word 'metafiction,' Big Bad Billy Gass, carefully listed in his early essay on E. M. Cioran, a set of bullet points sharp enough to make any corporate Powerpointer proud:
  • alienation
  • absurdity
  • boredom
  • futility
  • decay
  • the tyranny of history
  • the vulgarities of change
  • awareness as agony
  • reason as disease
We could doubtless find all of these themes in Infinite Jest (and certainly in Gravity's Rainbow) if we looked hard enough, and finding them there would support my old contention that postmodernism is neither more nor less than late Modernism, the Modernist movement's later phase rather than its dialectical antithesis. Nonetheless, this list reads like the beginning of a litany of the 'missing pieces' we seek in Sebald and his international contemporaries.

Don DeLillo and those he has influenced (about two generations of MFA writers, by now) try to sound these themes, but their playing is too deliberate, too academic, too terribly technical and not nearly musical enough. The reader (this reader, anyway) suspects that these mostly middle-class American writers are concerned with these themes not because they've felt the claws of these realities digging into their flesh, but because they read a list of these themes in an essay by Gass and learned that this was the proper stuff of serious fiction. (In a very similar way, young Dave Wallace learned his MFA lessons well and became a postmodernist in the postmodern era, a highly conventional act of unconventionality.) What the Americans mostly lack is what some foreign writers still possess, the authenticity of lived experience. Over the past 50 years, Europeans have experienced everything from totalitarian terror to revolutionary ecstasy (the political experience, not the club drug--although that can be an experience too) while Americans sat on their couches and watched these events on TV ("Ooooh, the Berlin Wall's coming down!... Pass the picante sauce.") An old argument states that U. S. 'serious' fiction tends toward suburban realism as a function of America's economic and geopolitical position as an isolated, affluent, secure, imperial superpower in which every citizen from Bill Gates to the housekeeper who mops the pee stains off Bill Gates's bathroom floors considers himself 'middle class.' We Americans have been terribly overdetermined to produce bourgeois fiction in the manner of Anne Tyler and Joyce Carol Oates.

But that situation is, tragically, changing before our eyes. Now that the United States is in undeniable economic decline, now that we have become a site of terrorism both domestic and foreign, now that the existential fear of violent death and the paranoid psychosis of the far right have become central elements in our nation's political discourse, now that grinding poverty exists a street away from spectacular wealth and the formerly comfortable middle class feels itself sinking faster than the Titanic, the former social determinants no longer apply. By all rights, 21st-century Americans should produce a 19th-century Russian literature. The America of our time is finally, terribly, a Dostoevskyan place. We are all foreigners now.

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