The vocabulary of literary ennui is now so familiar that it produces its own kind of boredom. We have seen it in John Barth’s much-anthologized essay “The Literature of Exhaustion”; in Zadie Smith’s confessions of novel-nausea; and in the tireless self-promoter David Shield’s cut-and-paste “manifesto,” “Reality Hunger,” in which the author declares that he is “bored by invented plots and invented characters.” J. M. Coetzee blurbed that book, confessing that he was “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings.” At the close of an otherwise magnificent review of Norman Rush’s new novel in the London Review of Books, Benjamin Kunkel makes an offhand mention of the death of the novel, a doomsday pronouncement so commonly invoked that it often seems more like a reflex than a reasoned argument.
One of the most genial voices of disillusion is that of the novelist and critic Tim Parks, whose warmly contrarian complaints about the state of writing have been appearing regularly on the New York Review of Books blog. His installment last week (upon which he has somewhat expanded in an essay published today), is an honest, provocative, and maddeningly wrongheaded meditation about his unhappiness with what he calls “traditional novels.” The depth and scope of Parks’s dissatisfaction is fairly intimidating. He feels “trapped” within the expected forms of fiction writing, especially those of realistic fiction. These books’ basic traits, he thinks—“the dilemma, the dramatic crisis, the pathos, the wise sadness, and more in general a suffering made bearable, or even noble through aesthetic form”—have become mannered and artificial to the point of irrelevance. Even worse, their typical trajectory, from “inevitable disappointment followed by the much-prized (and I suspect overrated) wisdom of maturity,” is oppressive and harmful because its universality enforces a single way of understanding the world—a way that not only leads to the disenchantment that has come upon Parks but which also sustains 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.”
The essay is diaristic, and this is part of what makes it interesting: there is something forlornly personal in its lament. Parks’s repeated distrust of novelistic wisdom seems telling. Latent in the life devoted to literature is the promise—although we don’t perhaps know where this promise comes from—that books will, in time, arm us with experience and maturity. But what if the solace of wisdom fails to arrive? Parks relates meeting with a former mentor who, retired and confined to a wheelchair, confessed that once-beloved novels by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green, and others had come to appear like “empty performances.” There may seem to be a lie inherent in works of realism that, in the final reckoning, fail to prepare you for what reality actually brings. And how futile it must feel, as a writer, to inexorably repeat that lie in each forthcoming book.
If Parks’s essay were strictly part of a memoir, there would be no cause to object. But he is also a critic, and, to a dangerous extent, he is putting forth his disillusion as a judgment on the state of literature. This tendency to project one’s own cynicism onto the books that failed to magically prevent it has become a little too frequent these days, and it needs challenging.
The fallacy, to my eyes, is in the invidious distinction between traditional and nontraditional novels. Parks places writers like Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Lydia Davis, and others who have taken part in the “postmodern adventure” in the latter camp, but on the whole he’s sketchy about what he means by the term. What’s clear, though, is that the word “traditional” is derogatory, signifying derivative, clichéd thinking (Parks makes reference to “passable imitations” of nineteenth-century novels), while its alternative promises freshness, liberation, “a way forward in words.”
But Parks isn’t talking only about mediocre novels when he invokes the tyranny of tradition. By his way of thinking, anyone who uses elements of conventional forms has done so out of either unthinking habit or unwilling necessity.
But this is untrue. For many, if not most, writers, things like plot, character development, and catharsis are not narrative fallbacks but dynamic tools that give shape to the stories they’re passionate to tell or develop ideas that are uppermost on their minds. The art of storytelling is ancient, but it is a flighty kind of world view that automatically equates oldness with staleness. Missing from Parks’s essay is the recognition that talent transmutes tradition. Gifted writers can make accustomed methods feel as new and vital as a work explicitly devoted to structural innovation. In both cases, the object is the same: form is used in the service of artistic vision.
The week that I read Parks’s piece I also read two newly published novels that might imperfectly occupy opposite poles on the imagined spectrum of the traditional and the transformative. Daniel Alarcón’s “At Night We Walk in Circles,” about a travelling theatre troupe in South America, contains everything that Parks rejects. The book’s avowed storytelling template comes from the stage, or stagelike radio programs, such as “This American Life.” Alarcón’s main characters are actors and playwrights, and, in his exploration of the ways that performance can bleed into real experience, he embraces melodramatic plot turns, situational irony, climactic convergences, and the tragic downward arc toward innocence lost. I had my quibbles—parts of the story are saccharine-sweet—but much of the book is animated by this bravura theatricality, and it’s very often lovely and moving.
László Krasznahorkai’s “Seiobo There Below,” in contrast, has no truck with orthodox plotlines. The virtuoso novel is an arrangement of temporally and geographically distinct but thematically connected encounters with the sacred. Each chapter winds obsessively around an object of veneration—a great work of art or a religious icon. The chapters themselves are numbered according to the Fibonacci sequence, which has its roots in ancient Sanskrit texts and relates to the idealized mathematical concept of the golden spiral. Krasznahorkai’s sentences approximate the form of an endlessly involuted spiral—they extend for pages at a time, always turning back on themselves in order to recreate the whirling immediacy, both the awe and the fright, of confronting something otherworldly.
“Seiobo There Below” actually addresses Parks’s wish for a narrative form that is more Buddhist than Judeo-Christian—one that doesn’t place the experience of living on a continuum that moves significantly from a start to a finish but, rather, holds our attention upon the moment, focussing on the “savoring of present experience.” But it is not a matter here of exalting one book over another, which is every critic’s prerogative. (Parks expresses mandarin amazement at the possibility, but the fact is that many serious readers get a lot more out of Alarcón’s kind of novel.) The point is in acknowledging that neither book is any more fundamentally “relevant” than the other. Both do the only thing that fiction can do—as best as they can, they harness their stories and themes and truths to a chosen form and style. Each aims for an effect and, to different degrees, each achieves it.
This sounds banal, but it bears repeating: this is all that a novel is. I’ve always loved the wonderful tautology that Tolstoy used when “explaining” the decisions he made while writing his magnum opus, with its symphonic medley of adventure writing, love stories, and social and historical disquisitions: “War and Peace is what the author wished and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed.” In other words, he viewed form as practical means to an end, not a confinement from which he had to perform weird contortions to escape.
Of course, Tolstoy also thought that strict adherence to conventional forms would hinder the writer of brilliance, and it goes without saying that great works make use of, or subvert, commonplace devices in bold and inspired ways. But implicit in Parks’s essay is a discontented yearning for something quite different from ingenuity—the groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting “way forward” that he desires sounds oddly salvational, a newly discovered way of seeing that will break him out of his present funk like a religious epiphany. Yet to imbue something as abstract as narrative form with talismanic, revelatory properties is to insure the very disillusionment that he is desperate to dispel.
What about brilliance, beauty, truth? Parks doesn’t deny that these qualities exist in today’s literature; he merely contends that they have ceased to carry meaning. That in itself should point up the severe limitations of world-weariness as a guiding philosophy. If brilliance and beauty are traps, then consciousness itself is a trap, and the world, as Hamlet famously opined, is a prison; but even Hamlet understood that he was, to some extent, full of it.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the first and best “death of the novel” jeremiad ever written, the despairing Preacher observes, “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” The ultimate lesson of maturity, the anti-wisdom insufficiently grasped by traditional novels, may indeed be that all great literature is vanity, all of it “empty performance.” In that case, Parks should heed his own advice to savor present experience and privilege “sense and immediate perception” above an artificial “construction of meaning.” Or he can listen to the Preacher and simply read and write joyfully during the small portion that he is allotted. There is so much passion and wonder in today’s fiction; it is his fault, not that of the books, if he lets those things go unseen and unfelt.
Sam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal and is an editor at Open Letters Monthly.
Essay on Life and Death in Literature
868 Words4 Pages
Death is part of life, it is only natural that authors, and poetics writes about death. The word death brings different feelings to minds. Most are scare of the thought. Some embraces death, the thought of meeting our maker. The feeling to not exists, while the rest of the world goes on with their lives is overwhelming. To write about death, they have to write about life. Life and death is usually the plot in short stories, plays, and poems. “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and “When I have fears that I may cease to be” by John Keats all uses life and death as a plot.
The short story “A Rose for Emily” begins with the death of her father. The trauma of her father’s death puts her in a…show more content…
When she dies, she is free from her horrible life. When she dies her repulsive secret is out. (Cited in DiYanni, 2007, pg.73)
“The Story of an Hour”, starts of with death. Mrs. Mallard founds out that her husband died in a train week. Her first response was to cry. She was so horrify with her husband’s death, she locks herself up in her room. In her room her mind begins to wonder. She recalls her love for her husband, so also recalls she did not love him all the time. She remembers the day before she founds out about his death, she had wish for life to be short. She starts to imagine life without him. She realizes although she will miss him time to time, she is going to enjoy life. “Free! Body and soul free!” (Cited in DiYanni, 2007, pg.39) She comes out of her room happy, hoping for a long “free” life. When she comes down stairs, the front door opens up. She sees her husband standing there. He is alive, the “bending” house. There she is probably in shock from seeing him. She sees her free, happy, and long life just draft away. She screams aloud horrible scream. Poor, Mrs. Mallard dies of a heart attack. (Cited in DiYanni, 2007, pg.38)
Life and death is the plot in “The Story of an Hour.” The conflict is his death and his life. At the beginning, when everyone hears about his death, they are scare about Mrs. Mallard’s heart disease. After, she discovers he is not alive, is also the conflict. Mrs. Mallard’s life and death was the denouement.