Monday, June 11, 2012

John Donne, Undone

Imagine Donne’s famous poem/meditation rewritten to read,

Every man IS an island unto himself.
Ask not for whom the bell tolls.
It’s not my problem.

Politics aside, I’m thinking of a fairly recent literary trend in which the characters of the novels shun human relationships and responsibilities, display little affect and seek isolation. They barely have a pulse.

The celebrated French author, Michel Houellebecq, writes with a chilling remoteness. In his 2012 book The Map and The Territory the protagonist, an artist, is so cold his most enduring relationship is with his boiler. Made objects hold his fascination more than people. Both parents in the book end their own lives and he lives out his own as if on an island in a sea of grassland. In real life he was born and raised on a small island off Madagascar in the Indian Ocean until age six when his mother and father are said to have, lost interest in him.

The English novelist Tom McCarthy writes with the same obsessive impulse. Characters populate his pages you would never invite to your fantasy dinner party much less meet at Starbucks for a cuppa. They seem bloodless, so de-humanized they dissolve into ideas. The action is deliberately repetitive. One critic said while reading him he experienced a will to no longer live. Indeed, both writers dwell on death in its many permutations.

Yet these are risning stars in the literary night sky. McCarthy was short-listed for the Man-Booker prize and Houellebecq is winner of the Priz Novembre, the French equivalent. Like it or not they are important voices, conceptual literary artists, in our midst whose purpose seems to be to provoke and thereby widen our perception of what our market-based system and technology have done to us. Under the illusion of connectivity we may be moving further toward an atomized existence.

Whether they are writing parody, forcing us to confront life and death or are simply unable themselves to create emotionally fleshed out characters remains unanswered for me. One critic characterized Houellebecq’s language as having a crystalline brutality. He seems to wallow in the vulgar and vile aspects of existence. Michiko Kakutani, a N.Y. Times critic, called him a deeply repugnant read.

The French writer enters his novel as a major character only to be murdered and dismembered with his body parts assembled around the room to resemble a Jackson Pollack action painting. He puts death in our faces as a way to force us into a confrontation with mortality. Their counterpart in the art world would be Damien Hurst whose dead sheep in formaldehyde was recently exhibited at LACMA.

In McCarthy’s novel C we are given a surfeit of codes, signs, hums and whirs which may be metaphors for larger meanings or lead us nowhere. Again, intimacy is depicted with objects rather than through human relationship. When Serge, our protagonist is close with his sister, incest is suggested.

These are writers who set out to disturb, to rattle us from complacency. They proceed, as far as possible, to break the rules of conventional narrative with digressions, misdirection, plotlines withheld and an absence of motivation. Worldly goods are seen as utilitarian. Characters live austere lives above any interest in possessions. I take this as a statement rejecting the commodification we have come to embrace as consumers. Psychological probing to explain behavior is absent as well. Whereas 19th century fiction moved toward the revelatory these books seem to propel the reader to the abstruse. The translucent is much preferred over the transparent. There is no resolution to our predicament.

Non-literary page-turners of the best-seller variety are designed to shorten the flight-time from LAX to Hong Kong. In contrast, the aforementioned books will make you squirm and demand your attention. You may get agitated. Whether you will see the world from a slightly different angle or just attack the flight attendant I’m not sure.

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