Books discussed in this essay:
• Aureole Carole Maso. City Lights. 136pp, $12.95.
• Zeroville Steve Erickson. Europa Editions. 380pp, $14.95.
• Michael Martone by Michael Martone Michael Martone. FC2. 186pp, $15.95.
Here’s the problem. You decide to try some reading outside the ordinary, a novel that doesn’t have the usual earmarks, and it proves interesting, satisfying, but you don’t entirely understand why, and when you look for help, an illuminating review or something, you can’t find any.
You’ve picked up Carole Maso’s Aureole, for instance. This edition is dated 2003, from City Lights Books—didn’t they do Howl? Indeed, the first riffle through the pages reveals a poet’s typography, lots of white space. Is that paragraphing? Still, you take a flyer, and the upshot is, pretty damn good. The book reads first like poetry, then like stories, then like a novel. The front matter lists no previous publications, and while between each titled story or chapter you find no obvious connections, hardly any names for instance, you do pick up recurring phrases, developing histories, consistent obsessions. Sexual obsessions primarily, and primarily lesbian, though the encounters have too strange an angle of view, and too many ellipses, to qualify as porn. The reading experience isn’t difficult, exactly, not with so much flesh and heat, but you swing from one startling phrase to another:
reminded by the fragile or the streamers, persimmons on a night table—or pomegranates, as I look up from the sumptuous beautiful body of another woman, what am I remembering?
Wanting you in this life—and all lives.
Without veils, where we might rest.
Where the plum tree? The burning barge? And the swollen river calling?
Throughout, the emphasis isn’t on sumptuous bodies so much as on ruptured expectation, busted logic. A priest rebuffs a girl’s infatuation but ends up a craven voyeur; two women tumble into sadomasochism, somehow needing the corruption. The cosmopolitan settings, Paris and Provincetown and somewhere along the Ganges, create a hothouse environment, but no one’s wallowing in privilege. Rather, the tensions recall Henry James, on tenterhooks between sophistication and yearning. In later sections, featuring an older protagonist, even the lovemaking suggests her passions’ evanescence (reminded by the fragile or the streamers . . .). By the time you finish the centerpiece, “Anju Flying Streamers After,” an elegy that’s also a resurrection, Aureole looks like poetry after all. It participates in a tradition going back to Sappho (who turns up, naturally); it both celebrates Aphrodite’s rare visits in the flesh and mourns her departures. The Aureole brightens, but also drains.
Pretty damn good, in short. The book’s power resides, as well, in all the questions it raises—like, how can she get away with this? How can so unlikely a narrative hurt and tickle and signify? Yet when you go looking for answers, some clarifying criticism, you discover the truth of a quip I heard from Roseanne Quinn, a Maso aficionado at Santa Clara U. In a conference paper (now published), Quinn grumbled that the only decent explication of Maso’s work comes from Maso herself. This when the author has eight books by now, including The Art Lover, reissued as a “New Directions Classic” in 2006. But for a number of her titles, it’s difficult to find commentary other than a squib in Publishers Weekly. Worse, regarding Aureole, the Kirkus notice manages to get several details wrong in the space of 250 words.
That’s the problem, the impetus for this essay. In the millennial U.S., for those who venture an unconventional approach to booklength fiction, criticism just hasn’t been doing its job. In Aureole‘s case, a fascinating alternative remains largely ignored. The lone fuller appreciation I found was written long after publication and for a small-circulation quarterly, The Review of Contemporary Fiction. What’s more, what’s worse, can be the sort of notice a novel receives, if it violates the norms. Another book I’m going to look at, Steve Erickson’s far-from-ordinary Zeroville (2007), enjoyed high-profile encomiums; the Times Book Review hailed it as the author’s “best.” Yet the Times reviewer, Liesl Schillinger, went on to say: “it’s simply impossible to explain the intent and direction of this . . . novel.” Oh really? And this from someone described as “a regular contributor” to the Review? A better brief example of the problem with contemporary criticism would be hard to find.
* * *
The applause that greeted Zeroville, in any case, should be taken as an aberration. Far more commonly, when American booklength fiction strays from straightforward realism and structure – Erickson strays from both – and when one of the major review outlets gives it attention, the write-up will be vicious. It’ll look as if the author has wandered into Sniper’s Alley. Over half a century ago, Robbe-Grillet’s For a New Novel traced recent developments in the artform, but those trying for similar innovation on this side of the Atlantic have come under repeated attack, in our most prominent critical forums. “Postmodern” sits comfortably with other media, whether a Danger Mouse mashup or Angels in America. But when it comes to novels, the term’s a dirty word, even for a lot of novelists. John Gardner would be the most obstreperous; his call to the Old School barricades was On Moral Fiction (1978), a book that gets far wider play, these days, than his fiction.
Champions of imaginative freedom exist, of course. But vituperation towards all that’s Po-Mo has been pretty much the rule, across the most prestigious organs of our literary culture. I’m not the only one to have noticed; recently Zadie Smith too puzzled over the pervading ill-will, and I’ll get to what she had to say. But first, consider the history.
For starters, as recently as Robbe-Grillet’s best years (The Voyeur appeared in ’55), most U.S. readers wore blinders. There was censorship, I mean; only in ’58 were stores allowed to carry Lady Chatterly’s Lover, in spite of Lawrence’s implication that adultery could be good for you. In the ’60s—the ’60s, man—the homegrown novels Naked Lunch and Last Exit to Brooklyn went up before similar tribunals. It helps to keep this Puritanical background in mind. For not long after Burroughs saw print, Barthelme turned up in the New Yorker, and Barth brought out his essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” a brilliant piece but hardly combative, more established figures began to lash back. Gore Vidal, inveterately combative, tore into Barth, Barthelme, and others in “American Plastic,” a ’76 essay that set the pattern for Gardner’s screed two years later. Indeed, On Moral Fiction feels flimsy by comparison, little beyond its media-savvy title. In retrospect it’s the least of these complaints.
The best would be Tom Wolfe’s from ten years further along, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” While ill-informed about the novelty it seeks to repress (calling Robert Coover a “Minimalist,” for example), “Beast” nonetheless makes a rip-snorting defense of the social novel and the realistic tradition. It’s a worthy polemic, especially good on the value of research.
Now, when Wolfe himself writes novels, he lacks the impact of a younger author who’s staked the same claim. Richard Price has brought off urban portraits-in-the-round, in Clockers especially, with a depth you won’t find in A Bonfire of the Vanities. So has Richard Powers, another novelist of the generation that followed Wolfe’s. Granted, there are sizeable differences between older writer and younger; Wolfe wouldn’t be caught dead in Kearney, Nebraska, the locale of The Echo Maker. So too, distinctions must be drawn between the Baby Boomers. But the accomplishments of both belong in the social-realist tradition of novelists from Fielding to Steinbeck, and bear out its continuing vitality. The Billion-Footed Beast hardly lacks for vigorous young caretakers. Yet back on Sniper’s Alley, there’s been no letup.
The loudest recent fusillade came from Jonathan Franzen. In interviews as The Corrections climbed the bestseller lists, and in an ’02 New Yorker essay, Franzen launched into harangues that, though similar to Wolfe’s, don’t hold up so well. Franzen’s core value was the slippery business of “reading pleasure,” and though he had a particular bête noir, William Gaddis, he whaled away pretty indiscriminately. So too B.R. Myers made the Atlantic cover with his “Reader’s Manifesto,” but he lumped Don DeLillo together with Toni Morrison. Meyers treated both as the same threat to storytelling. What’s actually the same, if you step back for a long view, is the thesis behind the various broadsides. A thesis insistent as a chant: Po-Mo bad, meat-&-potatoes good.
Exceptions can always be found. In ’79, The Atlantic made room for Barth’s followup, “The Literature of Replenishment,” and in ’05 Harper’s ran Ben Marcus’s witty response to Franzen. Still, mainstream criticism held to its oppressive pattern, one that also puzzled Zadie Smith. In the fall of ’08, in the New York Review of Books, Smith reviewed, at length, two very different novels. She looked at Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, the sort of social novel Wolfe would applaud, and at Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which eschews norms of realism and representation. Recognizing that the two fictions were “antipodal,” Smith wondered at how “American metafiction” had come to be branded a “failure,” by “our most famous public critics.” She noted that David Foster Wallace’s name had now been added to those of the usual suspects.
Her assessment, happily, rated the strange Remainder more highly than the familiar Netherland. Still, she left begging two questions raised by her considering these novels together.
Question #1 addresses the criticism, the entrenched response I’ve just summarized. This response would have it that the Literature of Exhaustion and Replenishment has long since proven something like a motel room in a horror movie. Once an author checks in, he’s never seen again. Yet if that’s the case, if in fact it’s been the case for two generations now of novel-writing Americans, why go on posting the skull and crossbones? Why, when anyone can see the social novel remains durable? The answer’s complicated, it entails more than books and their intrinsic qualities, but certain causes and effects need to be pointed out before getting into the more literary business of Question #2. That would be: what’s at stake in the lengthy prose narrative that’s not about a few recognizable men and women in a well-researched time and place? When we turn, as writer or as reader, to more esoteric fiction, are we entirely rejecting the qualities that distinguish, say, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? Does the metafictional, the postmodern, the experimental – “Oh I wish there were some words in the world,” cries Barthelme’s Snow White, “that were not the words I always hear!” – does that sort of novel really have so tenuous a relationship to the rough and tumble in which we live?
* * *
The problem, it bears repeating, lies with the criticism and not the novel. Serious fiction has faced scary new difficulties over these past decades, difficulties I’ll try to appraise, but the core process for its practitioners hasn’t changed. Nor has it gotten any easier; a developing creative spirit still learns by trial and error, which includes trying out all kinds of older books—including those outside the learner’s sensibility. An apprentice novelist may settle eventually into the mainstream, but on the way there, at some point, he’ll call for madder music and stronger wine. Thus younger proponents of social realism have no problem, unlike Old Man Wolfe, expressing regard for members of the other camp. Richard Price told me he loved Gilbert Sorrentino’s Steelwork, a collage without a narrative; half-joking, he said he had sections memorized. Richard Powers claimed that, when he was having trouble with The Time of Our Singing, few things helped so much as a fan letter, out of the blue, from John Barth.
By now Price and Powers represent the parents, in mid-career. Now it’s their children who must embrace or reject wilder permutations of booklength fiction. Meantime, the business of publishing offers little help, in a terrific confusion, at once atrophied and lush. The tangle reaches to issues outside novels themselves, as I say, and so I’ll trace just three of its roots.
Begin with commercial publishing, shrinking and fickle. As far back as 1980, Thomas Whiteside’s The Blockbuster Complex chillingly detailed the slide, among the larger literary agencies and publishing houses, towards the lowest common denominator. In the 30 years since, things have only gotten worse. A “gentlemen’s business” like Harper & Row became a conglomerate like HarperCollins, a media octopus concerned less with good books than with predictable quarterly profits. Also changes in tax law, under Reagan, swept away the publishers’ backlist. For them, for decades, the backlist had been a cash cow; for novelists, it was perhaps their best opportunity to develop an audience. Now if their work felt like too much of a challenge, if it appeared unlikely to turn a quick buck, more than likely it had no place in Manhattan.
So elsewhere in the country, countermeasures got underway. The U.S. has enjoyed a boom in smaller publishing, the second significant development a critic needs to understand. University presses and such had long been essential for American poets, but over the last 30 years or so they’ve mattered more than ever for novelists. A heartening number of such ventures have sustained a continuing contribution, from Coffee House in Minneapolis to FC2, recently moved from Tallahassee to Houston. Success for a novel with one of these isn’t measured by sales, so much, since most are not-for-profit (an exception would be the excellent Unbridled Books, out of Columbia, MO, and Lakewood, CO). But on the other hand, state or federal subsidies leave next to nothing for advertising. There can be distribution problems as well. If a reviewer’s failed to do his homework, the proliferation of small-press titles will resemble a bewildering stretch of urban sprawl: cul-de-sacs of paperbacks. The clutter of a bookfair can leave a person overwhelmed.
Still, doesn’t this new dilemma only raise another old challenge? Hasn’t it always been a critic’s job to wander the stalls and pick out what’s deserving? As for the artist, their assignment hasn’t changed either—call it creating something that can’t be overlooked. But every artist also knows of worthy efforts that went overlooked, for most of a lifetime at least, in the pandemonium of the American marketplace. Two signal cases in fiction would be stylish Dawn Powell and scummy Charles Bukowski.
Putting these elements together, the collapse of former guide-posts and the persistence of non-negotiable demands, the trouble with contemporary criticism can be understood as largely a problem of degree. Too many critics follow the money, uncritically; that’s not my whole argument, but that’s a lot of it. Not enough critics will cock an ear to any noise beyond New York, or take time to sample twenty pages of a novel that comes out of nowhere and demands extra effort. Too often reviews fall back on clichés about “characters that live and breathe” and “packed with Dixie [or Down East, or DUMBO] detail.” It’s as if everyone selected from the same menu in the software – a program that functions best with the social-novel template. But if the interface of individual and society takes an unfamiliar form, it robs far too many reviewers of their apparatus for passing judgment.
* * *
In this imperfect world, for novelists who work in an alternative mode and appear on an alternative press (the two sets overlap almost perfectly), a primary resource has become the Internet. The Web offers a solution, when the career’s gone DIY. The situation recalls the music scene of the ’60s, when innovators from Dylan to Zappa could get around the musical establishment by manipulating new systems. In the present decade, literary websites have made a contribution to rival that of the small presses. Case in point, the Emerging Writers Network. Yet the growing importance of the Internet, not just for publicity but as an actual venue for publication, also presents the third stumbling block to the appreciation of fiction other than social realism.
Conventional wisdom has it that the Web has become one of the worst distractions from the novel. Old print, runs the argument, can’t keep up with our new toys. What’s more, as computers grow smaller and speedier, a book presents that much more cumbersome a technology. Well—true. The argument’s irrefutable, as far as it goes. Yet an informed critic should also understand the way in which Internet culture remains irrelevant to the evolution of narrative. Novels no longer claim the cutting edge in entertainment, granted, but their hundred-year run was over a hundred years ago. Besides that, their grip on the reading public was always less than unbreakable. Even the fiercely intelligent Elizabeth Bennett insists to Mr. Darcy, “I cannot talk of books in a ballroom; my head is always full of something else.” That was in 1813, and these characters too contended with threats to their reading time. At least one of those threats, anxiety over their place in the class system, no longer exists. These days, there’s no question that some potential readers will linger longer over a Facebook status than a good story. But overall literacy keeps increasing, and among those numbers there will be those for whom Austen seems harder to comprehend than, say, Percival Everett’s Glyph.
Now, the pleasures to be had in Glyph, indeed in the whole lengthening shelf of American metafiction, are dwarfed by the issues around electronic communication. Most of those lie far beyond the scope of my essay. But that bookshelf, the howls of warning it raises and the way it keeps growing regardless, suggests that the web poses a threat other than simple distraction.
D.H. Lawrence argued that the novel was unmatched as a medium for “subtle interrelationships,” but 80 years after Lady Chatterly, what offers more subtlety and interrelatedness than the World Wide Web? And if the new novel is Facebook, or World of Warcraft, then aren’t novels that break from social realism even further behind the curve? The Internet, in other words, makes the avant-garde seem retrograde. It suggests that the real artists are over in computer-based hypertext. The foremost champion of electronic narrative is Robert Coover, also of course a first-wave figure in American postmodernism. Coover’s hypertext course at Brown, his essays in the Times and elsewhere, provide the most reliable crystal ball we have for the future of story. As he points out in an ’09 American Book Review, this form of expression has already gone “from oral tale-tellers to clay tablets to scroll to codex to printed book.” The metamorphoses (to cite a lovely antique) won’t end there, not so long as the species has a need for myth and fable. Then why would any young imagination with a penchant for going outside the lines not explore a computer-based variant?
One answer is that they already are. Most postmodern novels render experience in ways not unlike a good session on the web. An example would be the plotting by association, by juxtaposition, in Aureole. Any longer story set in the present will feature the Internet somehow, but books that push the envelope actually transpose the sensations into print (I say something about this later, with reference to two sample novels). Still, those sensations reach the reader via an older technology, and I say this with no disrespect for the newer one. I much admire Shelley Jackson’s hypertext Patchwork Girl. But Jackson herself went on to a story in prose, between covers, with Half Life. Nor has Coover ever abandoned putting pages between covers. For him as for most fiction writers, that challenge remains enough for one lifetime. The geek skills required for hypertext, not to mention the profound adjustment required by its open-ended narrative, still keep the form at arm’s length.
Technological advances always put a fresh spin on the arts, and roughly a century ago, faced with the possibilities of motion pictures, Jean Cocteau made a useful remark. “Film will become an art,” he claimed, “only when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.” Since then, that point has very nearly been reached, thanks to innovators from Godard to the founders of YouTube. The more we live via thinking machines, the more our stories will take on elements of the experience. The process already has a number of benchmarks, in novel form—and I’m not even talking about graphic novels. Many an American experiment in long fiction includes visuals, but they aren’t comic books any more than they’re software. Barry Weem, Boy Genius strikes me as terrific, as do several other graphic novels, but it uses fundamentally different tools.
Meanwhile, over in print, the artists keep notching benchmarks. Still relying on subtle interrelations between language and pattern, novelists have matched the bewildering changes thrown at us with surprises of their own; their artifacts expand perception and suggest fresh forms of order. Such as? Specific cases? I’ll get into three, next, but each underscores how alternative storytelling is hardly withering in the shadow of computer culture. Rather the two media share the light, affording greater mutual illumination. It’s enough to make you think the postmodern novel has a social function.
* * *
Naturally, other pressures shape contemporary American fiction. For one, there’s the ferocious growth of Creative Writing programs. But surely the CW curriculum has had its greatest impact economically, as a means of earning a living. So far as the art and its development is concerned, the academic arena presents the usual moil of good and bad, along with the same major actors: the dwindling bigs, the mushrooming smalls, and the roar of the communications revolution. It tells you something when one of “our most famous public critics” takes on Creative Writing and sounds as truculent as if the subject’s metafiction. Louis Menand’s “Critic At Large” piece in the New Yorker, summer ’09, railed against the Associated Writing Programs in pretty much the same terms Gore Vidal used almost 40 years ago.
In either case, the attack’s a frightened one, at bottom. Frightened and lazy—that’s the baseline motive, behind the critics’ continued attacks. From Vidal to whoever’s next, they keep raising alarums because the barbarian hordes keep coming. They just keep coming, and for an armchair general, it’s too much work to figure out their mall-rat tactics, their kitchen weaponry.
But that’s my job now, my Question #2: how the Vandals do it. Remember, too, that I come in peace; my analysis intends to reveal how John Barth and Tom Wolfe might shake hands. Thus my own generation of novelists provides the most useful examples. If I got out William Gass again, the text-bending Gass of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, I’d leave the postmodern stuck in the past. Better to look at those who began when Willie Masters’ had already changed the landscape, and who have since brought off alternative structures of their own, and whose best work may yet lie ahead. That’s the career juncture at which Price and Powers stand, after all. If they exemplify the continuing vitality of the social novel, my representatives of another aesthetic should be more or less coeval. So I’ll return to Maso’s Aureole, then look at Michael Martone by Michael Martone—by Michael Martone, and published in ’05—then at Erickson’s Zeroville.
The sequence has nothing to do with ultimate worth. Each of the novels strikes me as inspired and finely wrought, and it wouldn’t serve my purpose to award stars and half-stars. Rather I should begin with a couple of points all three have in common. First, while the authors have had some success with commercial houses (Erickson especially), their novels are now on smaller presses. Zeroville appeared with the new Europa Editions, an offshoot of an Italian publisher, and Martone/Martone is on FC2. Second, while each book has an idiosyncratic take on “story,” even a browser will see that they’re socially relevant in their subject matter.
Maso’s characters may move in a privileged milieu, but as I say, her stolen moments of ecstasy prove eventually as fragile as the golden bowl of Henry James. Erotic strategies, as in James, must adjust and adjust again for the lovers’ relative status and for local mores, now in New England and now New Delhi. In Martone/Martone, every “chapter” (as in Aureole, the term doesn’t quite fit) begins in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and nearly all address the quotidian realities of Middle America in the late 20th century. Martone’s so savvy about heartland economics, Sinclair Lewis could learn a thing or two. As for Zeroville, it turns a kaleidoscope on a kaleidoscope and yet seems the most real-world of the three. Erickson’s is a tale of the movie industry, told in straightforward chronology, and he doesn’t neglect to expose Hollywood enslavement to money and status.
Of course, a browser can also see that Zeroville’s author is no plodding realist, no more than the other two. But my thumbnails play up the books’ social materials for good reason. One measure for how criticism has lost its bearings, when it comes to the New and Newer Novel, is how often reviews ignore just such basic considerations. You see it too often. A reviewer will harp on formal issues, but leave out matters like where the money comes from. More galling still, the critical establishment isn’t so blind when the experiment comes from abroad. John Updike could be a conscientious reader, and he swiftly grasped how contemporary Italian compromises were central to Italo Calvino. But when Americans tried something similar, Updike’s response was silence. He did deign to look at DeLillo’s Players, but couldn’t locate its reality, and sniffed at the “spindly motivation.” Reviewers give foreign writers credit they won’t give those from the States; the latest example would be Roberto Bolaño.
Part 2 of this two-part essay can be read here.
John Domini’s latest novel is A Tomb on the Periphery. His translation of Tullio Pironti’s memoir Books & Rough Business is now out, and this essay will be the lead piece in his forthcoming collection, The Sea-God’s Herb.
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