Monthly Archives: September 2013

In Which Contemporary Literature Exposes the Fallacy of the Theory-Practice Dichotomy

I feel like I’ve been writing a lot lately about the theory-practice dichotomy.  The thing is, I’m not a big fan of false dichotomies or generic absolutism, but when ideas about language and writing are poorly wedded to the writing itself, the divide rears its ugly head.  This is what makes this kind of poor writing so awful: it calls into existence a problem that isn’t really there.  Theory and practice are one, or are each other, or don’t really exist as pure categories as such, unless you work really hard to pull them apart and isolate them in an effort to be showoffy.

ImageFortunately, I think there are a lot more contemporary writers working to use ideas about writing in order to make writing do the aesthetic and emotional work it can do than whatever the opposite of that is.  Two recent books of short stories by American writers, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove and George Saunders’ Tenth of December are fabulous examples of this.  Each of them, in different yet related ways, touches the heart of something human and real while still foregrounding the literariness and unreality of representation itself.

What both collections have in common is the whiff of the fantastical.  Strange, even supernatural occurrences abound, the impossible is.  It might seem strange to claim that stories that trade so heavily in the unreal make up some of the most real and honest writing I’ve read, but there is something about their experimentation with genre and language that gives access to a depth of feeling and beauty that is both unsentimental and unironic.  Why does this work here and not in, say, Embassytown?  Partly this is probably attributable to the skill of the writers, but partly I think it’s an attitude toward the unfamiliar and the unusual that doesn’t mark all difference as Other.

For example, the title story of Russell’s collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” re-envisions vampires simply as immortal versions of ourselves, captive to monstrous myths not about the terrifying Other, but about themselves.  These vampires don’t need blood to survive, but the legends they’ve heard about this need influence their desires.  They do suffer from a perpetual, unquenchable thirst, from which they find respite in various things, including, for a time, fresh lemons from the grove in the title.  Mostly, however, they are lonely; an immortal in a world of ephemeral beings, the narrator has only ever met one other vampire, his wife and partner of centuries.  But like all couples, their relationship suffers from misunderstanding, miscommunication, changing needs and desires.  The characters may be vampires, but their lives are recognizable, even quotidian, and their terrible thirst is our own.

Not all of the stories in Russell’s collection are as serious or supernatural, but they cover a wide array of locations and time periods as well as genres and themes: from the 19th century American West to Imperial Japan, from horror to science fiction to humor.  In a sense, Russell seems to play with all of these places and attitudes in order to underscore what is common between them: the human characters at their hearts, who share similar fears, joys, disappointments and triumphs no matter where or who they are.

10th of DecemberA similar premise underlies George Saunders’ work, although his literary world is more uniform from story to story, typically set in a present that looks much like our own but often with some of its most troubling features exaggerated in some small way that calls our attention to their injustice without being heavy handed.  George Saunders has become the poet of the vanishing American middle class, a prophet for those of us who wonder what we did wrong.  Recently, a commencement address Saunders delivered at Syracuse University’s 2013 graduation ceremony was widely circulated on the internet; in it, he argues in favor of kindness as the highest human goal, the thing that gives us access to our best selves, a true way of achieving success.  I think what makes his fiction so good, so important, is that even the silliest (and there is lots of silliness), most brutal (also some brutality), sad (of course: sadness) stories are also infused with this deep, profound awareness of everyone’s humanity and our shared burdens that can only be described as kindness.  It is a rare writer who could, say, make us sympathize with an incarcerated murderer subject to psycho-pharmalogical experimentation that has the hint of a science-fiction future but seems like it also might be happening right now.

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite among these stories, but “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” which I first read in The New Yorker, is one of the best.  It contains all of Saunders’ stylistic hallmarks: a conversational, colloquial syntax premised on the notion that the story is made up of diary entries; the hint of the fantastical, in the form of yard decorations made of young girls from third-world countries who volunteer to be strung together on a wire that passes through their brains; a protagonist struggling with the burdens of family, finances, and his own and others’ expectations.  Somehow, the intimate, almost jokey yet self-deprecating first-person voice combined with the strange device of the Semplica Girls evokes a tender, devastating portrait of suburban family life: the competition with the neighbors, the teetering upper-middle-class lifestyle, the balance between openness with and protection of one’s children and spouse.  And surrounding this, the chilling, not-quite-fictional atmosphere of international capitalism and its victims, both foreign and domestic.  These stories are short, precise, and clever, but there are deep pools of meaning swirling beneath the surface.

Both Russell’s and Saunders’ work represents some of the best of contemporary American fiction and its tremendous possibility.  It also does a service to literature more generally in its almost tender treatment of grand literary ideas and theories through unadorned, beautiful prose.  These are the kinds of stories that renew my faith in humanity, and in literature.

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Theory and Practice

ImageAt one point, after coming across a reference to the difference between langue and parole in China Miéville’s Embassytown, I said to my husband, “This guy must have some kind of background in language theory or the philosophy of language, because he’s throwing around jargon like a grad student.”  The next day I googled him, and it turns out I was right, or at least partially so.  Miéville has a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics, and published a book based on his dissertation, a Marxist analysis of international law, in 2005.  As a good Marxist scholar, I’m sure he’s read Volosinov and Bakhtin, among others, and he seems steeped in theory of all kinds, so I think my original guess was a fair one.

The problem is that the theory that often makes for fascinating and revolutionary scholarly work also makes terrible fiction if not handled carefully.  That’s not to say that there are not masterful works of fiction that also address complex theoretical issues through form, structure, narrative, dialogue, plot, and other means.  But it takes a special touch to pull this off and still make the work entertaining and beautiful.  David Mitchell serves as one example of a great writer who addresses larger theoretical and formal issues through intricately constructed, aesthetically gorgeous fictions.  His Cloud Atlas is probably the most ambitious work of fiction ever written in this vein, the theory quite literally entwined with the narrative.

Mieville’s Embassytown is not as successful, to be judicious.  Oddly for a book with a plot this convoluted, it’s mostly boring.  Without attempting to summarize the entire twisty story, suffice it to say that it centers on an alien planet where humanoid  creatures live as the guests and trading partners of the native alien life form, which communicates in a unique, non-signifying, doubled language.  That is to say, they have two mouths out of which they speak simultaneously, but everything they speak must have a real-world referent: there is no abstraction, no metaphorization, and, most importantly, no lying.  Ultimately, the most interesting part of the novel, which comprises about the last quarter of the book, centers on the question of lying as the key to signifying language that allows for a plasticity of thought necessary for survival.  Even here, though, the text descends into Derridean obfuscation: “Similes are a way out.  A route from reference to signifying.  Just a route, though.  But we can push them down it….To where the literal becomes….something else.  If similes do their job well enough, they turn into something else.  We tell the truth best by becoming lies.”  Huh?

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China Mieville

Miéville’s work is usually classified as science fiction or fantasy, and he’s won a lot of awards in these genres.  I haven’t read anything else of his, so his other books might be of much better quality, but unfortunately it seems to me that the awards belie much lower standards in what we call “genre” fiction than “literary” fiction.  (Incidentally, if Miéville is a good Marxist scholar, he would probably deny the validity of the distinction.)  There are some other contemporary writers who, in recent years, have tried hard to blur the boundaries between these categories with much more success.  One need only think of Michael Chabon’s work (especially The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) or, again, of David Mitchell to know that literary fiction can be genre fiction, and vice versa, or maybe that those categories are just not particularly useful.  The problem with a book like Embassytown is that, in an apparent attempt to create a theoretical, literary work of science fiction it only reinforces the categories it seems intent on breaking down, reminding its readers with every plodding sentence that there is something better out there.

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