Friday, December 2, 2016

Tim Parks / Trapped Inside the Novel

Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum Photos
Goma, Congo, December 14, 2012

Trapped Inside the Novel

By Tim Parks
October 28, 2013, 5:03 pm
I wonder how many people share the experience described by David Shields in Reality Hunger, of tackling some 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, and simply feeling that the whole exercise has become largely irrelevant. Shields doesn’t present his remarks as a criticism of writers—the name he mentions is Jonathan Franzen—pursuing the tradition of the long realistic novel. Rather, he suggests it is a change in himself, something he believes has been brought about by the utterly changed nature of contemporary life. He considers the variety of electronic media—the proliferation and abbreviation of all forms of messages, the circumstances created by the ever more rapid transit and greater abundance of information, the emergence of a powerful virtual world that becomes more real to us all the time—and he concludes that given this way of life it is hard for the traditional kind of novel to hold our attention. He then looks at a variety of texts that, unlike the traditional novel, weld together chunks of “reality,” pieces of documentary taken from elsewhere, quotations, fragments, provocations, moments of lyricism, and melodrama, perhaps from film or television, newspapers or websites, to create an entirely different reading experience.


I share Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels. More and more I wonder if it is possible for a novel not to give me the immediate impression of being manipulated toward goals that are predictable and unquestioned: the dilemma, the dramatic crisis, the pathos, the wise sadness, and more in general a suffering made bearable, or even noble through aesthetic form, fine prose, and the conviction that one has lived through something important. But to go from that to fragmented, rapidly intercut chunks of “reality,” however powerfully they may evoke certain aspects of contemporary living, doesn’t work for me, nor do I entirely agree with Shields’ analysis, however strongly and passionately he makes his case.
First of all, it is clear that many people who are entirely at home with their iPhones and iPads, music clapped to their ears and text messages vibrating in their pockets, still very much enjoy the traditional novel—regardless of whether it offers an account of life that corresponds to theirs. Otherwise how to explain the vast numbers of readers picking up the work of a Hilary Mantel, a Richard Ford, or, on the more popular side, a Stieg Larsson or an E.L. James? If the form is losing its seduction for some, it is clearly alive and well for many. Indeed, its very distance, in most cases, from the texture of modern life, the impression it can give of shape, continuity, and hence meaning, may be its most reassuring and attractive aspect. The growing popularity of historical novels would tend to confirm this. Such works as Wolf Hall, this year’s Man Booker winner The Luminaries (both more than 600 pages), and the prize’s “runner up,” Jim Crace’s Harvest, or again the much-praised The Traveler of the Century by Spanish novelist Andrés Neuman, all suggest in different ways that, despite its enigmas, we know more or less what a life is or should be, we can follow its trajectories, we can put the past in relation to the present.
This is exactly where my dissatisfaction with the form begins. Over recent years I have preferred the works of writers, many long dead, who seemed to share my anxiety that the traditional form was scandalously overconfident: Beckett’s novels, Thomas Bernhard’s, more recently, the strange amalgamation that is Lydia Davis’s lifelong collection of short stories, if stories really is the right word for them. Even so, this kind of writing, and with it the whole postmodern adventure, seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form, and there is a limit to the pleasures, comedy and wisdom of negative energy and deconstruction. One risks ending up like the goat in Beckett’s Watt, who, chained to a post, has wrenched the post from the ground, but has no idea where to go and is hampered by the chain still fastened round his neck and by the post which continues to clatter wherever he turns. The pathos of failing to achieve meaning replaces the more immediate pathos that clings in the traditional narrative to the characters’ meaningful lives. But Beckett’s fiction, however wonderful, is the novel as noble dead end, a heroic bivouac on the edge of a civilization in denial.
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. At once a palace built of words and a trajectory propelled by syntax, the self connects effortlessly with the past and launches bravely into the future. Challenged, perhaps thwarted by circumstance, it nevertheless survives, with its harvest of bittersweet consolation, and newly acquired knowledge.
I’m being reductive. 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.
It is a way of seeing that is bound to produce states of profound disappointment for those who subscribe to it. “Munro brilliantly tracks the lives of those who did not achieve what they expected to,” exclaimed one British paper after this year’s Nobel prize was announced. It hardly seems a cause for congratulation if the Western mindset is constructed around first projecting extravagant ambitions, the infamous “dream,” and then relying on authors like Alice Munro to offer consolation when it isn’t achieved, or alternatively to live it vicariously through those who do achieve it, by reading celebrity biographies, another increasingly popular genre. In this regard, one can even see the consolations of literature as one of the forces sustaining a destructive cultural pattern. We are so pleased with our ability to describe and savor our unhappiness it hardly seems important to find a different way of going about things.
What I don’t understand is whether this kind of narrative strategy is a natural consequence of choosing the novel form, or simply the default setting of fiction in our culture. Beckett famously felt that the problems of literary fiction were inherent in language itself, in its overconfident, unquestioning forward motion, and that the only response possible was, as it were, to write against language, to expose it, have it trip itself up. In a much-quoted letter written in 1937, he even imagined a time when language itself might be dissolved or eliminated:
It is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask. Let us hope the time will come…when language is most efficiently used where it is being most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it—be it something or nothing—begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.
A few years ago, Colm Tóibín—at present one of the finest masters of the traditional narrative form, the dying fall, the sad accumulation of pathos and wisdom—observedthat Beckett himself was second to none when it came to manipulating grammar and style, as if that constituted a contradiction. Not at all: the problem lies exactly in feeling that one’s skills are only suitable for a project that no longer makes sense. So many writers are now able to produce passable imitations of our much-celebrated nineteenth-century novels (again The Luminaries is a case in point). Their very facility becomes an obstacle to exploring some more satisfactory form.
So, is there a way forward in words that could express a quite different vision of self and narrative? In my own small way I tried to do this in my recent novel Sex is Forbidden, where a young woman in a Buddhist meditation center is seeking to move away from mental habits—ambition, regret, unhappy love—which have entrapped and humiliated her. I don’t think I succeeded. Buddhism, as a set of teachings and practices that invite the dissipation of the “fiction” of self and a quite different idea of social involvement and personal trajectory, became in the end simply a stark contrast that exposed the extent to which the girl was trapped in the Western obsession of creating one’s own successful life story. Most readers, I’m sure, were eager for her to avoid the seductions of nirvana. More generally, the tale’s literary nature, its very presentation of itself as a novel—perhaps I just mean my own ambitions—inevitably dragged it back toward the old familiar ploys, the little climaxes, the obligatory ironies. True, one could set them up and then retreat from them, prepare and not deliver, encourage the reader to see how wearisomely novels do go in a certain direction. But the whole endeavor was like sailing against a strong wind: however hard you point to the open sea you are constantly blown back on the familiar coast. When the moment comes to discuss the blurb with the publisher you know that you haven’t done anything new.
To conclude: in 2011 I had occasion to visit an old university tutor, a rather severe and demanding professor, who nevertheless played a generous part in encouraging me to write. He read my first attempts at fiction and introduced me to writers who would later be important to me, most notably Henry Green. I had not seen him in thirty years. Long since retired, he was now restricted to a wheelchair and, with time on his hands, had been re-reading old favorites, all the great novels that had inspired a lifetime’s career in reading, writing, teaching. We talked about Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Henry Green, Elisabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell.
“How did they hold up?” I asked cheerfully.
“Not at all,” he told me. “They feel like completely empty performances. Like it wasn’t worth it at all.”
Coming out, it felt like I’d just been to a very challenging tutorial.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tim Parks / Raise Your Hand If You’ve Read Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Raise Your Hand If You’ve Read Knausgaard

ByTim Parks

Is there any consistent relationship between a book’s quality and its sales? Or again between the press and critics’ response to a work and its sales? Are these relationships stable over time or do they change?
Raise your hand, for example, if you know what the actual sales are for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. This mammoth work of autobiography—presently running at three five-hundred-page volumes with three more still to be translated from his native Norwegian—is relentlessly talked about as an “international sensation and bestseller” (Amazon) and constantly praised by the most prestigious critics. “It’s unbelievable… It’s completely blown my mind,” says Zadie Smith. “Intense and vital…. Ceaselessly compelling…. Superb,” agrees James Wood. Important newspapers (The New York Times for one) carry frequent articles about Knausgaard and his work. A search on The Guardian website has ten pages of hits for articles on Knausgaard despite the fact that the first volume of My Struggle wasn’t published in the UK until 2012. In a round-up of authors’ summer-reading tips in the same newspaper, the academic Sarah Churchwell remarks that after sitting on the jury for the Booker prize she looks forward to being “the last reader in Britain” to tackle My Struggle.
One could be forgiven, then, for imagining that this is one of those books which periodically impose themselves as “required reading” at a global level: Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom all spring to mind, literary equivalents of internationally successful genre works like Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey.
Well, as of a few days ago UK sales of all three volumes of Knausgaard work in hardback and paperback had barely topped 22,000 copies. A respectable but hardly impressive performance. In the US, which has a much larger market, that figure— total sales of all three volumes (minus e-books)—stood at about 32,000. This was despite the fact that with Knausgaard’s growing reputation the powerful Farrar, Straus and Giroux stepped in to buy the paperback rights from the minnow Archipelago and bring its own commercial muscle to bear. On the Amazon bestsellers ranking, A Death in the Family, the first and most successful volume of the My Struggle series, is presently 657th in the USA and 698th in the UK, this despite a low paperback price of around ten dollars. 
So what is going on here? Should we be reassured that critics are sticking loyally by a work they admire regardless of sales, or bemused that something is being presented as a runaway commercial success when in fact it isn’t? Wouldn’t it be enough to praise Knausgaard without trying to create the impression that there is a huge international following behind the book? Or do the critics actually assume that everyone is buying it because they and all their peers are talking about it? 
The truth is that one can only get hold of accurate statistics by subscribing to an organization called Nielsen BookScan. The figures in this article were obtained by pestering friends in companies who hold such subscriptions. Even BookScan isn’t entirely reliable since it doesn’t take in all independent booksellers. So actual sales will be slightly higher than those I have given, though independents notoriously do not account for a large slice of the market. In general, however, the public are only given hard figures when they are impressively high. It’s a reticence that encourages hype, especially in an age in which we have come to expect that these huge international bestsellers will happen, the publishers in particular treading water and looking around themselves like surfers hoping to catch the next monster wave. 
Of course we have seen the same assumption of worldwide success with any number of novels that are presented as follow-ups to a previous international bestseller. Eco’s novels after The Name of the Rose, Rushdie’s after The Satanic Verses, Franzen’s Freedom after The Corrections. Initial reviews of Freedom in particular were wildly over the top, The Guardian even giving the book a preview in prime position on its home page with the critic pronouncing the novel a major work while admitting that he hadn’t yet received a copy. We’re used to this kind of thing. But Freedom did sell, 68,236 in hardback in the UK, rather fewer in paperback, about half of what The Corrections sold. Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, a memoir telling of his years in hiding after the fatwa, commanded enormous column space in the press, understandably given the subject matter, but UK sales were just 7,521 in hardback and only 1,896 in paperback. However in these cases, as soon as the wave doesn’t happen the critical buzz quickly subsides.
The curiosity with Knausgaard, then, is that the impression of huge and inevitable success was given not with the precedent of previous international success, but solely on the basis of the book’s remarkable sales in the author’s native Norway. Norway, however, is a country of only 5 million people—a population that is half the size of London’s—and of course the whole tone and content of My Struggle may very well be more immediate and appealing for those who share its language and culture; it is their world that is talked about. So the great success was announced before it happened and continues to be announced as it continues not to happen. At the level of public perception, in a way, it has happened. People believe the book is major bestseller. Let us try to get the situation into some kind of perspective.

Steve Rhodes/Demotix/Corbis
The first two volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in FSG’s paperback reprint, with Archipelago’s hardback edition of volume three, at Alexander Book Company in San Francisco, June 30, 2014

When I was growing up in the Sixties and Seventies we were given to believe that there was a distinction between literary fiction and popular or genre fiction. The latter would sell better than the former but would not be reviewed; at most thrillers and romance novels would receive a brief notice. They might also be advertised at the expense of the publisher. Apparently no one felt the need to talk about a book just because it sold a lot of copies. Publicity was left to publicists. Works of literary fiction on the other hand would be earnestly reviewed with no reference to their commercial success or otherwise.
In reality this distinction was already breaking down. Literary authors like Graham Greene and Muriel Spark in the UK or Updike and Roth in the US were achieving very considerable sales in their own countries and genre authors like John Le Carré or Isaac Asimov were justly noted for their literary qualities. As early as 1950 the Italian novelist and critic Cesare Pavese was worrying about the blurring of lines between the trivial and the serious, complaining that the commercial was being presented as literary and the literary made as commercial as possible, indeed that literariness itself was becoming a genre. Literary prizes, he believed, were not immune; eager for winners to reach a wide readership and bring the prize more attention, juries would be encouraged to choose popular winners and writers would begin to write toward this mix of popularity and easy prestige. 
Certainly now, for better or worse, almost all distinction between the way different kinds of novels are presented has largely disappeared. Newspapers review Dan Brown, Alice Munro, J.K. Rowling, and Orhan Pamuk with equal solemnity, attention being driven by the sense that the writer is winning prizes or moving copies or being pushed as the book of the season by a major publisher, not by a lucid curiosity for whatever may be written between the covers. At the same time serious publishing houses have discovered the trick of packaging genre fiction as if it was great literature; one thinks of the prestigious Italian publisher Adelphi, reissuing all seventy-five of Simenon’s Maigret novels in very much the same format and with the same $25 price tag as their editions of Thomas Bernhard, Sándor Márai, or Nabokov. Even the academics have joined in with whole conferences dedicated to, for example, the “problem” of translating the character names in the Harry Potter saga. No one wants to be left out of a global success. 
Meantime, since most newspapers have gone online and many have their own online bookshops, a certain confusion seems to be developing between reviewing and sales promotion. Bestseller lists sit beside reviews on every webpage, as if commercial success were an index of quality, while one can often click on a link at the end of a review to buy the book. Literary novels come complete with stickers announcing them as international bestsellers as if this were a part of their literary achievement. In Europe publishers never forget to tell readers in how many countries the author’s work is published.  
Although readers tend to prize writers for their independence from influence, they also seem eager to buy the works of writers who have attracted the highest number of readers; at the same time it’s hard to imagine that the writer him or herself will not be influenced by the confirmation that commercial success brings. Would J. K. Rowling have written seven Harry Potters if the first hadn’t sold so well? Would Knausgaard have written six volumes of My Struggle, if the first had not been infinitely more successful (in Norway) than his previous novels? Sales influence both reader and writer—certainly far more than the critics do. 
In general I see nothing “wrong” with this blurring of lines between literary and genre fiction. In the end it’s rather exciting to have to figure out what is really on offer when a novel wins the Pulitzer, rather than taking it for granted that we are talking about literary achievement. But it does alert us to the fact that as any consensus on aesthetics breaks down, bestsellerdom is rapidly becoming the only measure of achievement that is undeniable. 
Or put it another way: a critic who likes a book, and goes out on a limb to praise it, may begin to feel anxious these days if the book is not then rewarded by at least decent sales, as if it were unimaginable that one could continue to support a book’s quality without some sort of confirmation from the market. So while in the past one might have grumbled that some novels were successful only because they had been extravagantly hyped by the press, now one discovers the opposite phenomenon. Books are being spoken of as extraordinarily successful in denial of the fact that they are not. 
I can only encourage others (and myself, for I’m by no means immune) to hold on to the idea that what matters about a book for the reader is our experience reading it, not the number of copies it has sold. However, given that it is unlikely that critics, publishers, and retailers will ever stop using commercial success as a tool of persuasion, let us at least have easy access to the real sales figures. I might for example have picked up Knausgaard’s Struggle precisely to be able to talk about it with others, only to discover that the others hadn’t read him. But then I suppose we have all read the reviews. We can talk about those.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Tim Parks / Reality Fiction

Reality Fiction

Tim Parks
October 16, 2014, 4:30 pm

It has long been a commonplace that fiction provides a way to break taboos and talk about potentially embarrassing or even criminal personal experiences without bringing society’s censure on oneself. Put the other way round you could say that taboos and censorship encourage creativity, of a kind. But what happens if the main obstacles to free and direct expression fall away?
Eager to find a form of expression for ideas or feelings that would upset a status quo we are all heavily invested in, writers have often invented stories quite different from their own biographies or from the political situation in which they find themselves, but that nevertheless reconstitute the play of forces, the dilemmas and conundrums behind their own preoccupations. “Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject?” Beckett has his aging narrator, Malone, ask himself of himself, as he tries and fails to tell a story that will be the merest escapism.
Consider Dickens’s late novels, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, where so many of the characters labor under the psychological strain of keeping a deep secret that can never be revealed. Is Dickens aware that he is reconstituting his own anxieties as he tries to combine the experience of being a very public figure with keeping a young mistress year after year? Probably yes. He had complained to friends that rules of propriety prevented him from talking about large areas of experience. At the end of Our Mutual Friend he puts together an extraordinary series of events to allow a lawyer to marry a boatman’s daughter and then to have this unlikely development discussed around a well-to-do dinner table where all but one person present describes the union as grotesque and disgraceful. Close friends of Dickens would have seen he was reflecting on what would happen if he tried to bring his beloved mistress Ellen out into the open.
But Dickens lived 150 years ago. Society has changed. Taboo after taboo has fallen away. People can now boast about coming from humble origins. Homosexuality is no longer something to be hidden; there may even be social and commercial advantages to a writer’s “coming out.” Love relationships and marriages are no longer conceived of as fortresses of propriety, such that every difficulty or infidelity must be strenuously denied. And in any event it’s becoming harder and harder to deny things. Everyone’s posting photographs on Facebook, everybody’s leaving traces of what they do or say on email and Twitter. Those who suffer abuse of any kind are more willing to speak up. With or without the NSA, the kind of collective reticence and sense of privacy that allowed Dickens to keep his young woman hidden from the public eye for so many years is a thing of the past.
What does all this mean for creativity? Readers have become so canny about the way fiction works, so much has been written about it, that any intense work about sexuality, say, or race relations, will be understood willy-nilly as the writer’s reconstituting his or her personal involvement with the matter. Not that people are so crass as to imagine you are writing straight autobiography. But they have studied enough literature to figure out the processes that are at work. In fact, reflecting on the disguising effects of a story, on the way a certain set of preoccupations has been shifted from reality to fiction, has become, partly thanks to literary criticism and popular psychology, one of the main pleasures of reading certain authors. What kind of person exactly is Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, and how do the differences between their latest and previous books suggest that their personal concerns have changed? In short, the protection of fiction isn’t really there anymore, even for those who seek it.
Naturally, one response to this is the confessional novel, or simply autobiography. Knausgaard’s My Struggle is the most recent example: six long volumes of intimate and sometimes scabrous personal minutiae. Arguably Thomas Bernhard’s Gathering Evidence, five brief but almost unbearably intense autobiographical volumes, and Coetzee’s three volume, third-person novelized autobiography, Scenes from Provincial Life (BoyhoodYouth, and Summertime), are further, though more austerely structured examples. Coetzee insists that his books are “novels” not memoirs, and in fact they have competed for novel prizes; yet the main character is John Coetzee, his early life follows the same trajectory as the author’s and he is presented in the most unflattering light: in bed with another man’s wife, brushing off a girl who has aborted his child, and so on.
Such “confessions” would have been dangerous a hundred years ago. By calling these books novels you might say that Coetzee is holding onto a fig leaf. More interestingly, I suspect he is telling us that the word “fiction” was always a fig leaf, that literature can always be deconstructed to arrive at a play of forces that is essentially autobiographical, so that in a sense these more candidly autobiographical works are no more revealing than the fiction that came before them. Certainly, rereading Coetzee’s great novel, Disgrace, after Scenes from Provincial Life, the continuity between the two projects is obvious.
But another response to the collapse of taboo, censorship, privacy, is for authors to step back from narrative altogether and reflect instead on the whole impulse to tell, or to tell things in a certain way. That is: a young writer may set out by imitating past novelists he loves, but then begin to wonder why on earth they are telling stories in this elaborate roundabout way, fighting so hard to cover things up, when now there is just no need to do so, to the point that borrowing a working method from say, Thomas Hardy, or even Muriel Spark, simply makes no sense today.
Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage is a fine example of this. Torn between writing a novel of his own or a biography of D. H. Lawrence, Dyer at one point admits that he hasn’t read all of Lawrence’s fiction and probably never will; he has reached a point where Lawrence’s life and letters are more interesting to him than his fiction. This shift of focus, which seems to surprise Dyer even as he acknowledges it, is in line with his dwindling enthusiasm for writing a novel of his own, such that every time he tries to start a novel he finds himself preferring to think of D. H. Lawrence, and in particular, D. H. Lawrence in so far as he does or does not resemble Geoff Dyer.
However, since Dyer is not a professional biographer, and has no patience for compiling a traditional work of non-fiction, what exactly is he going to write? The answer is that strange intertwining of fraught memoir, biography manqué and to an extent fiction that is Out of Sheer Rage, a book that suggests that D. H. Lawrence’s direct non-fictional statements about himself were more immediately engaging than the fictional works where he found ways of putting his most intimate concerns before the public. Who needs the novels, Dyer asks, if we can get a lively expression of Lawrence’s concerns and character in the letters? And why should I create unnecessary fictions if a changed world now allows me to express my own concerns without any reticence at all?
Dyer is determinedly avant-garde, so it’s not surprising to find him at the forefront of developments in the literary world. The more traditional novelist David Lodge is a different case also altogether. In his recent Lives in Writing Lodge tells us that as he gets older he finds himself more interested in “fact-based writing” than in fiction and goes on to offer an account of the lives of eleven writers, most of them novelists. Lodge had already written novelized accounts of the lives of Henry James and H. G. Wells and mentions his embarrassment that in the same year he published his novel on James, Colm Tóibín also published a novel on James and in the year he published a novel about Wells, A. S. Byatt also published a novel, much of which was based on the life of Wells. We have a trend.
Lodge explains his new interest in fact rather than fiction in his typically low-key manner, as merely “a common tendency in readers as they age, but it also seems to be a trend in contemporary literary culture in general.” Very casually, without any further elucidation, that is, Lodge has suggested that both as individuals and as a culture we can expect to grow out of fiction. It was a phase. All the same, the facts that Lodge turns out to be interested in, when we turn to his recent novels or to Lives in Writing, are the lives of people who wrote fiction—Kingsley Amis, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Anthony Trollope—and what interests him is how these people transformed their personal concerns into novels. That is, he is interested in the phase that he himself seems to be emerging from, or in the process of change that is occurring. Again, as with Dyer, we have the sense that a situation that once made the novel extremely important, as space where difficult questions could be fielded with impunity, has now altered, such that the author brought up on this model is now bound to reflect on what to do with his ambition and creativity.
So has fiction now outlived one of its sustaining purposes? That is the question Lodge, Dyer, Coetzee, Knausgaard, and many other writers are posing (one thinks in particular of David Shields’s madly provocative Reality Hunger). It could be we are moving towards a period where, as the writer “gets older”—as Lodge has it, carefully avoiding the positive connotation of “matures” or the negative of “ages”—he or she finds it increasingly irrelevant to embark on another long work of fiction that elaborately reformulates conflicts and concerns that the reader anyway assumes are autobiographical. Far more interesting and exciting to confront the whole conundrum of living and telling head on, in the very different world we find ourselves in now, where more or less anything can be told without shame. Whether this makes for better books or simply different books is a question writers and readers will decide for themselves.

Monday, November 28, 2016

George Saunders / A brief survey of the short story

George Saunders

A brief survey of the short story part 71

 George Saunders 

George Saunders's funny, sad stories from a divided nation

Chris Power
Thursday 13 October 2016 10.00 BST

With a surrealism that owes a lot to the real world of ordinary Americans, his stories offer sharp, moral parables of contemporary life in the US

Earlier this year, George Saunders wrote an article for the New Yorker about Donald Trump’s election campaign in which he described an America “intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse”, divided into “two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down. Not only do our two sub-countries reason differently; they draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems.”
This riven America has always been Saunders’s great subject: there is a reason why his first collection is called CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, with its title story set in a war re-enactment theme park; and it is the same reason why, 20 years later, his forthcoming first novel focuses on Abraham Lincoln in the early 1860s. As symbols of American division go, none are greater or more terrible than the civil war.
Saunders’s America isn’t only divided into left and right, but also rich and poor, black and white, and, most notably, the individual and the corporation. Aside from being one of the funniest writers around, it is difficult to think of anyone better than he is at describing how commercial imperatives deform individual lives. The powerlessness of the individual haunts his stories, the sense of citizens being to multinationals as flies to wanton boys. “‘I pour my life’s blood into this place,’” the narrator’s father says in the early story Isabelle (1994), “‘and you offer me half what I paid?’ ‘Market forces at work’,” the estate agent replies, a line that is virtually impossible to argue with, both within the confines of the story and without. Variants of it occur again and again in his work, expressing the idea, as he put it in 2001, “that our public institutions – our companies and our government and our media – absolutely affect our ability to exist gracefully in the world”.
“Market forces at work.” The words could be a top-line summary of Saunders’s stories, whether their focus is demeaning wage slavery (stripping at a chain restaurant; inhabiting a lonely cave on the outskirts of a vast theme park), advertising (the nightmarish marketing research facility of Jon; the consumerist, Philip K Dickian society of My Flamboyant Grandson), the military (the angry, isolated veteran of Home), or drug testing (on chimps in the bleak lab report of 93990, and convicted felons in the more satirical Escape from Spiderhead).
These stories are rife with euphemism, those phrases Saunders identifies as ways of enabling the unsayable to be spoken, and the unthinkable to be broached. Employers talk of “staff remixing”, not layoffs, and urge their employees to “Tell the truth. Start generating frank and nonbiased assessments of [your] subpar colleague,” while researchers who kill their human test subjects exonerate themselves by announcing they are merely obeying “the mandates of science”.
Saunders is often called a surrealist, a fabulist or an allegorist, but his work contains a lot of recognisable reality, often in the form of people worrying about how to balance insufficient income and excessive expenditure. This, from The Semplica Girl Diaries (2012), captures the rising panic of a father working every angle to move his family another rung up the social ladder:

Visa full. Also AmEx full and Discover nearly full. Called Discover: $200 avail. If we transfer $200 from checking (once paycheck comes in), would then have $400 avail. on Discover, could get cheetah. Although timing problematic. Currently, checking at zero. Paycheck must come, must put paycheck in checking pronto, hope paycheck clears quickly. And then, when doing bills, pick bills totalling $200 to not pay. To defer paying.
The “SGs” themselves are economic migrants, who leave their families to decorate suburban American lawns (the girls are strung from their heads via a microline threaded though their brain that “does no damage, causes no pain”). They are a pungent symbol of the way the west exploits third-world poverty. For much of its length, the Semplica Girls inhabit its edges, just as for the narrator, whose diary we are reading, they are marginal presences crowded out by the status anxiety he feels for his children: “Lord, give us more. Give us enough. Help us not fall behind peers. Help us not, that is, to fall further behind peers. For kids’ sake. Do not want them scarred by how far behind we are.”

This anxious father, barely tolerated by his children, is a stock character in Saunders’s fiction. “I’ve done my best” one screams in Bounty (1995). “Pitiful!” his wife screams back. Bounty is the longest story in his first collection, and combines several of Saunders’s key themes: not only the loser dad, but also a theme park patronised by the rich and staffed by the disenfranchised poor, and an apocalyptic US governed more by private companies than elected officials (“our corporations”, he writes in his Trump essay, “those new and powerful nation-states”). Like the country his contemporary and friend David Foster Wallace created in Infinite Jest, Bounty is a vision of where millennial America might end up after another 25 years of bad decisions:

I sit on the deck of the barge with a semiautomatic. The water’s brown. As prescribed by federal regs, all inflow pipes are clearly labelled. RAW SEWAGE, says one. VERY POSSIBLY THORIUM, says another.
Humour is intrinsic to Saunders’s project; it both sharpens and makes palatable his vision of humanity’s tendency towards predation. But as the extract above indicates, it was more antic and farcical in his earlier collections. The jokes in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) are very funny, but arrive with a relentlessness that can become mechanical, whereas the comedy in Tenth of December (2013) is richer, arising more from character than situation. In his essay on Donald Barthelme, a writer whose style of absurdist humour is deeply imprinted on CivilWarLand (Barry Hannah being another discernible presence), Saunders writes that “[s]ome part of art, certainly of Barthelme’s art, involves the simple pleasure of watching someone be audacious”, and there is a sense that this was enough for the younger Saunders, whose vision Joyce Carol Oates once described as “cruel”.

From today’s vantage, it is a strange word to read in relation to Saunders, someone who is often cited as continuing the project of working towards a moral fiction that David Foster Wallace once stated as his goal; a practising Buddhist who is cast as fighting the good fight against capitalism’s cruellest excesses; a sage who, like Wallace before him, has had a speech to students packaged up as an inspirational tract. But the early stories really do display cruelty, at least in part: much is made of disability, children are killed off at an alarming rate (this tendency, it so happens, has persisted: wherever you find yourself in Saunders’s fiction, you are never many pages from a dead child), and characters are forced out of difficult situations into impossible, agonising ones. This soliloquy, from The 400-Pound CEO (1993), captures the world in which much of the early fiction plays out:

I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy. I believe he takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us. He gives us a need for love, and no way to get any. He gives us a desire to be liked, and personal attributes that make us utterly unlikable. Having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the difference between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health.
But if Saunders was more callous towards his characters in the past, he has always positioned them within a moral landscape. The world he describes may seem to be beyond repair, and yet the urge to repair it persists. In his introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Saunders writes that Twain’s novel “locates itself squarely on our National Dilemma, which is: How can anyone be truly free in a country as violent and stupid as ours?” Saunders returns to the same moral conundrum again and again. “As soon as I start writing”, he told Ben Marcus in 2004, “things start to unfold around some central moral vector, and that’s that”. Inevitably, at some point in a Saunders story, an ethical decision has to be made. Like Flannery O’Connor, a writer who had a moral vision of forbidding harshness, Saunders enjoys stripping things down to the basics and setting two characters on a collision course. Think of Morse and Cummings in The Falls, or the drowning boy and the suicidal old man Eber in Tenth of December. Two people with opposing views set on an intersecting path: a fundamentally dramatic situation, and also, often, a moral one. In The Falls, the stressed dad Morse and the poet manqué Cummings walk alongside a river, each absorbed in their own frustrations. When they see, from their alternate vantage points, two girls in a canoe heading for the falls, a clear moral question is being posed. It is Morse who replies, throwing himself to almost certain death in order to try and save the girls, who, we are told, “were basically dead” already. The story’s final line – “he kicked off his loafers and threw his long ugly body out across the water” – resonates with a sense of the heroism that resides in the everyday, and the belief that it is what we attempt to do that defines us, rather than what we succeed in doing.

Reading Saunders in quantity, you get the sense that if The Falls continued beyond its abrupt end, Morse might not be pointed to as a hero but derided as a fool. An aspect of morality that Saunders is particularly interested in is the pressure that one person doing the right thing exerts on the vast majority of regular people who prefer to bump along with the blinkers on, making immoral or at least amoral choices and not appreciating being made to think about it. Brad Carrigan, American, from Saunders’s most overtly political collection, In Persuasion Nation (2006), is an ingenious study of the way morality breeds resentment. The story is a fantasy in which the main characters appear to be living inside a surreal sitcom. They hear music announcing commercial breaks, or to signify that the contents of their suburban back garden have “morphed again”, and “the familiar Carrigan backyard is now a vast field of charred human remains”.
It so happens that these slaughtered tribespeople can still communicate (ghosts are another Saunders trope). Brad befriends them, and is saddened by the story they relate. He tries to help them, but only succeeds in alienating his wife and her lover, Chief Wayne. She tells him:

Oh, you break my heart. Why does everything have to be so sad to you? Why do you have so many negative opinions about things you don’t know about, like foreign countries and diseases and everything? Why can’t you be more like Chief Wayne? He has zero opinions. He’s just upbeat.
Unable to simultaneously maintain his ethical standpoint and function in his domestic environment, Brad is consigned to a grey space where misfits get “Written Out”. Fittingly for someone whose compassion has made his existence untenable, his final utterance as he dissipates into nothingness is the repeated phrase: “Poor things.” The story is a masterpiece of Saundersian juxtaposition: satirical and absurd but heartfelt, and bleak but intensely funny. What better form for a critique of a divided country to take than a radical split between registers?
To return to Twain (who also wrote about two Americas, and chose a fitting name to do it under), the things Saunders identifies most clearly in his predecessor’s writing are also true of his own. Twain “started his career being purely funny”, Saunders explains, and “did not establish an agenda and carry it through, but wrote as the spirit moved him, in as improvisatory manner as ever writer ever did”. Likewise, Saunders has often spoken of attending not to theme, or overall structure, but to the individual sentence: get that right, and the rest, he says, will fall into place. “Huck Finn”, he writes, “is a great book because it tells the truth about the human condition in a way that delights us”. Saunders’s most successful stories work in the same way, leading us along new and surprising pathways to arrive at fundamental truths.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Beckett, the maestro of failure / A brief survey of the short story

Samuel Beckett
Illustration by T.A.

A brief survey of the short story part 70

 Samuel Beckett

The maestro 

of failure

Sketching lives very similar to her own, Berlin’s stories of hardscrabble lives resemble Raymond Carver’s – while also invoking some of Proust’s spirit

Chris Power
Thursday 7 July 2016 12.25 BST

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1966, Samuel Beckett wrote a short story called Ping. It begins:

All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one sure yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping elsewhere.
The first time I read it, it reminded me of the chant-like rhythm of BBC radio’s shipping forecast: a hypnotic flow of words the meaning of which is initially utterly obscure. But persevere and patterns emerge: “moderate or good, occasionally poor later”/“white walls”, “one square yard”, “white scars”. In both cases, we soon realise we are within a system of words performing very defined tasks, albeit ones only understood by initiates. But while fathoming the shipping forecast can be achieved relatively quickly, initiation into the system of words Beckett was working with in the mid-1960s is more complicated, not least because the system was corrupted, a failure, as were all the systems Beckett devised during his long career.

A page from Beckett’s notebooks.
The text reads: ‘What is my life but preference for the ginger biscuit?’
 Photograph: Sotheby's/PA

Beckett came to believe failure was an essential part of any artist’s work, even as it remained their responsibility to try to succeed. His best-known expressions of this philosophy appear at the end of his 1953 novel The Unnamable – “ … you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on” – and in the 1983 story Worstward Ho – “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Beckett had already experienced plenty of artistic failure by the time he developed it into a poetics. No one was willing to publish his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and the book of short stories he salvaged from it, More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), sold disastrously. The collection, which follows Beckett’s mirror image Belacqua Shuah (SB/BS) around Dublin on a series of sexual misadventures, features moments of brilliance, is a challenging and frustrating read. Jammed with allusion, tricksy syntax and obscure vocabulary, its prose must be hacked through like a thorn bush. As the narrator comments of one character’s wedding speech, it is “rather too densely packed to gain the general suffrage”.

Beckett in New York in 1964, on the set of Film, his short film starring Buster Keaton.
Photograph: IC Rapoport

Throughout this period, Beckett remained very much under the influence of James Joyce, whose circle he joined in Paris in the late 20s. Submitting a story to his London editor, Beckett blithely noted that it “stinks of Joyce”, and he was right. Just compare his, “and by the holy fly I wouldn’t recommend you to ask me what class of a tree they were under when he put his hand on her and enjoyed that. The thighjoy through the fingers. What does she want for her thighbeauty?” with this, from Ulysses: “She let free sudden in rebound her nipped elastic garter smackwarm against her smackable woman’s warmhosed thigh.”
Beckett was rudderless in his late 20s and early 30s (which, thanks to the allowance he received following his father’s death, he could just about afford to be). He wandered for much of the 1930s, having walked out of a lectureship at Trinity College, Dublin. He returned to Paris, then moved to London, where he wrote the novel Murphy and underwent Kleinian psychoanalysis. He toured Germany, and in 1937 settled in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1989. During the second world war, he joined the resistance, fled Paris to escape arrest, and lived penuriously in Roussillon. These years of wandering and war and want influenced the character of his later work. In 1945, working at a Red Cross hospital in Saint-Lô, he wrote an essay about the ruins of the town, “bombed out of existence in one night”, and described “this universe become provisional”. Versions of this ruin strewn landscape and post-disaster environment would characterise the settings and atmosphere of much of his later work.

Although Beckett had written some poetry in French before the war, it was in its aftermath he resolved to commit fully to the language, “because in French it is easier to write without style”. This decision, and his switch to the first-person voice, resulted in one of the more astonishing artistic transformations in 20th-century literature, as his clotted, exhaustingly self-conscious early manner gave way to the strange journeys described, and tortured psyches inhabited, in the four long stories he wrote in the course of a few months during 1946. The Expelled, The Calmative and The End, and to a lesser extent First Love (which Beckett, always his own harshest judge, considered inferior and suppressed for many years), describe the descent of their unnamed narrators (possibly the same man) from bourgeois respectability into homelessness and death.
We witness a succession of evictions: from the family home, some kind of institution, hovels and stables, basements and benches. There is a nagging suspicion that the initial expulsion in each story is a form of birth, often characterised in violent terms. (In the novel Watt, a character’s birth is described as his “ejection”; in Waiting for Godot, Pozzo says birth takes place “astride of a grave”.) These journeys become surrogates for the journey we take through life, as Beckett perceives it: bewildered, disordered and provisional, with only brief respites from a general strife. In the final scene of The End, the narrator is chained to a leaking boat, his life seemingly draining away. It is the monumental bleakness of works such as these (often shot through with splinters of sharp humour), thatHarold Pinter was writing of in a letter of 1954 when he called Beckett “the most courageous, remorseless writer going, and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him”.

Following the four stories, Beckett reached an impasse in his writing with the Texts for Nothing (1955). Language is on the verge of breakdown in these brief, numbered pieces. The disdain in which words are held can be summed up with the phrase “the head and its anus the mouth”, from #10. In #11 a crisis point is reached: “No, nothing is nameable, tell, no, nothing can be told, what then, I don’t know, I shouldn’t have begun.” Here the playfulness of the Three Dialogues, and the tortured courage of The Unnamable’s “I’ll go on”, has soured into hopelessness.
Discussing his writing in the early 60s, Beckett described a process of “getting down below the surface” towards “the authentic weakness of being”. Failure remained unavoidable because “[w]hatever is said is so far from the experience” that “if you really get down to the disaster, the slightest eloquence becomes unbearable”. Thus, the narrowing of possibilities that the Texts for Nothing describe leads into the claustrophobia of the “closed space” works of the 1960s. Beginning with the novel How It Is (1961), told by a nameless man lying in darkness and mud, and continuing with All Strange Away (1964), Imagination Dead Imagine (1965) and the aforementioned Ping, Beckett describes a series of geometrically distinct spaces (cubes, rotundas, cylinders) where white bodies lie, or hang, singly or in pairs. Beckett had reread Dante, and something of his Hell and Purgatory characterises these claustrophobic spaces. The language with which they are described is so fragmented that it is difficult to orient ourselves: we are in a system of words where multiple paths of meaning branch from every sentence, not on the level of interpretation but of basic comprehension. Take for example the opening line of Imagination Dead Imagine:

No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead good, imagination dead imagine.
Does the “you say” look back to “No trace anywhere ”, or does it anticipate “pah, no difficulty there”? As Adrian Hunter writes:
What punctuation there is has the effect not of assisting interpretation but of further breaking down any chain of meaning in the language. A simple orientational phrase like “you say” hovers uncertainly between its commas; instead of securing the speech acts that surround it, it operates as a kind of revolving door by which one both exits and enters the various semantic fields in the passage.
In Beckett’s next work, Enough (1965), he abandoned both the first person and the comma (only a handful are found in all of his later prose), his sentences becoming terse as bulletins, short afterthoughts (“modifier after modifier”, in one description) typically consisting of mono- or disyllabic words, that try – and fail – to clarify whatever image or sensation he is attempting to express. Hugh Kenner has written memorably of this phase that Beckett:
Seems unable to punctuate a sentence, let alone construct one. More and more deeply he penetrates the heart of utter incompetence, where the simplest pieces, the merest three-word sentences, fly apart in his hands. He is the non-maestro, the anti-virtuoso, habitué of non-form and anti-matter, Euclid of the dark zone where all signs are negative, the comedian of utter disaster.
Kenner’s evaluation echoes Beckett’s own words from a 1956 New York Times interview, when he contrasted his approach with that of Joyce: “He’s tending towards omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I’m working with impotence, ignorance”. The impasse reached in the Texts for Nothing continues in a story like Lessness (1969), which actually runs out of words: the second half of the text simply duplicates the first half with the words reordered, leaving us, in JM Coetzee’s description, with “a fiction of net zero on our hands, or rather with the obliterated traces of a consciousness elaborating and dismissing its own inventions”.

Strategies like these make navigating Beckett’s work even more challenging for the reader, to the degree that some critics decided pointlessness was its very point. In the case of Ping, this position is strongly rebutted in a 1968 essay by David Lodge. While acknowledging that it is “extraordinarily difficult to read through the entire piece, short as it is, with sustained concentration”, the words soon beginning to “slide and blur before the eyes, and to echo bewilderingly in the ear”, he concludes that “the more closely acquainted we become with Ping, the more certain we become that it does matter what words are used, and that they refer to something more specific than the futility of life or the futility of art.”
Beckett’s closed-space phase culminates in The Lost Ones (1970), a nightmarish vision of a sealed cylinder inside which “fugitives” circulate until futility or death overcomes them. The Lost Ones updates Dante into what one reviewer called “the art of a gas-chamber world”. It is written at an anthropological remove, the cylinder described in punishing detail, and at punishing length. For all the clarity of its language compared with Ping or Lessness, it is the most forbidding of his shorter prose works.

It was almost a decade before any more significant short prose emerged, but when it did another shift had taken place. The terrifying closed spaces were collapsed and gone, replaced by the twilit grasslands of Stirrings Still (1988), or the isolated cabin, “zone of stones” and ring of mysterious sentinels in Ill Seen Ill Said (1981). Language remains problematic, but a level of acceptance has been reached. The phrase “what is the wrong word?” recurs in Ill Seen Ill Said, as if to say: “Of course language is insufficient, but approximation is better than nothing”:

Granite of no common variety assuredly. Black as jade the jasper that flecks its whiteness. On its what is the wrong word its uptilted face obscure graffiti.

In these stories, written in the final decade of Beckett’s life and in which stylised settings blend with autobiographical material, often from his childhood, he seems to deliver us to the source of his creativity, to the moment where an idea sparks in the conscious mind. The terrain and structures of Ill Seen Ill Said seem to come into existence at the very moment we read them. “Careful,” he writes, tentatively bringing his creation into the world as if guarding a match flame:

The two zones form a roughly circular whole. As though outlined by a trembling hand. Diameter. Careful. Say one furlong.
It is an irony of Beckett’s posthumous reputation that his plays are now far better known than his prose, although he considered the latter his primary focus. That he wrote some of the greatest short stories of the 20th century seems to me an uncontroversial claim, yet his work in this genre is comparatively obscure. Partly this is a problem of classification. As one bibliographical note puts it: “The distinction between a discrete short story and a fragment of a novel is not always clear in Beckett’s work.” Publishers have colluded in this confusion: as evidence of the British phobia of short stories goes, it’s hard to beat John Calder’s blurbing of the 1,500-word story Imagination Dead Imagine as “possibly the shortest novel ever published”. Then too there are examples such as William Trevor’s exclusion of Beckett from the 1989 Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories for the nonsense reason that he expressed his ideas “more skilfully in another medium”, or Anne Enright excluding him from her own selection for Granta.

I suspect the real problem with Beckett’s short fiction is its difficulty, and that his greatest achievements in the form do not comply with what some gatekeepers suppose to be the genre’s defining traits. Unfortunate as the resulting neglect might be, this is a fitting position to be occupied by a writer who consistently struggled to develop new forms. If the history of the short story were mapped, he would belong in a distant region. The isolation would not matter. “I don’t find solitude agonising, on the contrary”, he wrote in a letter of 1959. “Holes in paper open and take me fathoms from anywhere.”