Friday, November 15, 2013


A blogger at The American Conservative pointed me to this post at The New Yorker today, on "the death of the novel."

(Incidentally, I'm a bit bemused by the fact that I'm finding a lot of intelligent writing at The American Conservative.  But I find that somewhat reassuring.  RWA1 and other right-wingers have lamented the stereotype of conservatives as, well, not too bright.  RWA1 himself complained about this on Facebook a few weeks ago: What, he wailed, about the great minds of the Right, like "Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, Friedrich Hayek, Harvey Mansfield"?  Why don't you libs talk about them?... I'd be happy to, but alas, RWA1 never links to them.  Instead he routinely serves up such second- and third-raters as Thomas Sowell, Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr., George Will, Jay Nordlinger, Glenn Harlan Reynolds, Peggy Noonan, Joe Rehyansky, and the Op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal.  Oh, and these persons.  ["A different kind of feminist," he called them, but he doesn't know shit about feminism.]  And he evidently believes that the late Andrew Breitbart was anything but a crooked hustler ... But I digress.  The point, and I do have one, is that there are people on the Right today who can think.  I don't agree with them on most things, probably -- Daniel Larison, for example, is evidently opposed to same-sex marriage, but that's not what he writes about -- but I'll read them, link to them and quote them when they say something useful.)

Anyway, that post at The New Yorker.  It's a reply to Tim Parks, a novelist and writer who posts at the New York Review of Books blog.  The New Yorker writer says:
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.
It's a common mistake to confuse one's own life-cycle changes with what everybody else thinks.  I'd been wondering recently if I'd lost interest in contemporary movies for just that reason.  After you've watched enough movies over many years, you may lose the ability to be surprised by them. Movies from the 50s and 60s I loved as a kid, for example, are often painful to watch now, with their wooden dialogue and stereotyped acting.  An acquaintance I met at the library today pointed to the Sean Connery James Bond DVDs on display nearby, for example, and asked what I thought of them.  I'd watched some recently, and couldn't get through them, with their mindless sexism, racism, and Cold War politics, but also their dated music and sensibility, the Playboy mentality that assumed the exemplary coolness of rich white guys with sports cars, hi-fi stereo systems, and Jazz music lps.  I've also watched movies with some unsophisticated friends who laugh delightedly at slapstick violence and other devices that didn't work for me, and I found myself wondering whether they weren't better off than I, since they could still enjoy them.  But I still wouldn't give up the experience of having watched and enjoyed a far wider range of films than they can, or of having read a similarly wide range of books, or listened to a wide range of music.

On the other hand, this past week I watched two recent movies, This Is the End and Europa Report, and was surprised at how much I enjoyed them.  Europa Report is a small-budget science fiction flick about the first "manned" expedition to the Jovian moon Europa to see if there's life there; This Is the End is about the End of the World, featuring various bro-movie stars (Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco, et al.) playing versions of themselves as Los Angeles collapses and is invaded by demons.  Both had their flaws, but I didn't worry too much about them, just enjoyed the expert playfulness at work in them, their joy in telling stories and creating illusions.

Which brings me to something else that occurred to me as I read Sam Sacks's response to Parks, though it's not something he said explicitly in the piece: Sacks did talk about Parks's "disillusionment" --
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.
 -- and it occurred to me that all art and entertainment involves the making of illusions and require suspension of disbelief.  Sometimes we lose the ability to suspend disbelief, it's true, but that's to do with us, not necessarily the works we're taking in.  When I first saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for instance, I fell in love with the visuals as well as the story and characters.  Watching Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh run and leap across rooftops took my breath away.  I knew it was fake, but the actors were able to create a sense of conviction about the fantasy.  (The much younger friend I saw it with griped about the wirework, despite director Lee's cutting-edge use of the technology; but you should see the movies he could take seriously.  I recall many geekboys who reacted to Crouching Tiger by celebrating movies like Ong Bak that didn't use wires (or so they thought; they were often mistaken), just "natural," "realistic" fighting (clearly they were unaware of the intricate planning, choreography, rehearsal, and multiple takes required to get that "realism" -- even Roger Ebert, who should have known better, thought that the sound effects of men falling from a tree at the beginning of Ong Bak were simple realism, no doubt from live mikes during the shoot).  Similarly I've had some interesting exchanges with people who insisted that nothing is needed in fiction but simple, direct, natural begin-at-the-beginning storytelling -- but there's no such thing.  (Starting a story in the middle or near the end of the plot, for example, is ancient; see The Odyssey or Oedipus Rex.)

Art is never natural; it's always art, in the old sense of the word which means objects (material or immaterial) constructed by human effort and skill.  And it always involves illusion, whether it's sculpture, drawing, poetry, fiction, drama, film, photography -- what you think you're seeing isn't really there, but to enjoy it and be affected by it you have to pretend for a while that it's there after all.  Where is the "meaning" in a poem?  In the words?  Between them?  Between the lines, in the white space?

But beyond this, the contempt for illusion and the ephemeral has bothered me for a long time: the belief that nothing has any value unless it's eternal and immortal.  It requires the fantasy that something is eternal and unchanging, but leave that aside.  Language itself is an illusion, the illusion that the noises we make are charged with immaterial "meaning," whatever that is, and strung together they make bigger, more serious meanings, so that you can talk about the meaning of a poem or story that is in the words, on the page.  Those meanings are in our minds, just like the meanings we construct from music or films.  I can sympathize with Tim Parks's loss of the ability to lose himself in fiction, whether as writer or reader, but it's his failure, not the failure of the works.