Saturday, May 26, 2018

Artifice vs Authenticity

The last three or four novels I’ve read seem not to be novels at all. No plot, nor arc. No distinct characters I could love or hate. And then what, is not an operative question. Don’t worry about losing your place; you can start at any point. The page-turner has disappeared along with toe-tapping melody in show tunes and rhyming poetry. Of course, I’m a bit late to the party. This has been the case for almost a century (Joyce and Woolf), evidenced here and there in book, movie, song, opera or poem. Where have all the flowery passages gone, the June, moon, tunes?

They all give off the whiff of artifice, of contrivance. About 30 years ago when Peggy and I were traveling in the Yorkshire Dales we struck up a conversation in a pub with a bunch of blokes. I mentioned how much we liked Upstairs, Downstairs. That’s rubbish, they said. So what do you watch, I asked. Dynasty, and Dallas, they chimed in, that’s real. Maybe our nose for the authentic only applies to our own artifice.

It could be cyclic but I doubt it. It should come as no surprise that a generation which shows an indifference to history would also reject a narrative which traces a protagonist through time. What we may have regarded as psychological depth the new sensibility may see as just another construct…no closer to truth than an exploration of surface. It strikes me as part of an inexorable move away from ornamentation and excess, from the tidy narrative, from the deductive logic of a sleuth and suspicious even of Truth itself with a capital T. Resolution has given way to irresolution and the open text.

A hand came out from behind the curtain and stabbed Clive with a knife. Who did it, we asked, as blood poured out of his tuxedo. L.B. he mumbled and right away we knew it must be Ludwig Beethoven or Leonard Bernstein or Lauren Bacall or Lucretia Borgia or Lizzy Borden or Lenny Bruce or maybe it was Lionel, the butler or perhaps he was just saying, I’ll be damned.

Tell me a story, Daddy. Once upon a time….and they lived happily ever after. Then we hear about the Moses myth or Jesus fable. Metaphors be with you! If only we accepted that these tales are not to be taken literally. Religion is the great, as if. Maybe we need it to navigate the chaos. Maybe we don’t. Who doesn’t love a good story? Today we might ask, who stole the narrative as if there was only one. At the far end of the spectrum we have a man in the bully pulpit who has mastered the art of faux-authenticity with fabricated blurts repeated to numb the brain.

In real time our day is a hodgepodge of distractions and digressions. Life doesn’t rhyme…except with strife (internal) particularly today with a surfeit of options pulling us in infinite directions. Randomness and uncertainty are those forces at work which we try to wrestle to the mat. Fiction is an attempt to impose order on all that but it doesn’t pass the smell test for the literati. In its place we get a sort of auto-fiction in which the author takes a few hundred pages to offer snippets of how it is to be alive in this time and place.

The streets of Manhattan are seen by a Nigerian man with a German mother in Teju Cole’s, Open City. Or the global experiences of an ethnographer finds connectivity between a hub city airport shut down by bad weather and the strands of a parachute which didn’t open in Tom McCarthy’s, Satin Island. Before those was W.G. Sebald and Ben Lerner wandering through their respective landscapes. The reader is asked to find patterns in their perceptions, not linear but arbitrary and quite often a stretch too far.

This is not to say that the traditional novel is dead. I still love a William Trevor short story above all else. His writing is exquisite, as if sculpted down to the bare essentials. But I’m an old guy misaligned with the new novel and trying to make room for it.

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