Tag Archives: genre

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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Ain’t Time a Goon?

A_Visit_From_the_Goon_SquadIn the early 2000s, a number of American writers (all male, which I think is significant, on which more below), in a conscious revolt against what they felt were the negative effects of literary theory and the academy on literary fiction, began to publish novels written in a familiar narrative vernacular designed to be accessible to the average reader.  Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex were the most prominent of these works, which Jonathan Franzen characterized as an argument for the novel.  There was also some anti-irony sentiment involved in this calculated turn away from both genre fiction and the literary tricks of writers like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.  Since that time, American fiction seems to have been divided into two camps, each of which sneers a bit at the other.  Either you are a postmodernist ironic trickster or a sentimental realist writer, and never the twain shall meet.

egan

Jennifer Egan

There are some writers (who tend to be among my favorites) that seem to resist this distinction, even embrace mixing the oil and water of realism and anti-realism.  Michael Chabon is one contemporary American writer who has done this successfully, writing novels that self-consiciously mix high and low literary styles, winking at us while simultaneously touching us deeply.  Jennifer Egan has entered that category as well with her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2010 novel A Visit from the Good Squad.  She has produced a masterful literary hybrid that never declares itself precisely, locating its narrative both within and outside of linear chronologies and recognizable genres.

The title of the novel itself refers to its unconventional treatment of narrative.  Taken from a semi-comprehensible declaration made by a mentally unstable character – “Time’s a goon” – the title declares its intention to reconceive chronology and linearity.  And it is indeed a “goon squad” the reader is faced with here: a narrative that wanders back and forth in time, from character to character, slowly circling and closing in on – but never reaching – a definitive conclusion.  That’s not to say that the book never ends – it does, and elegantly, with a marginal character from the first section who is now the central character remembering that earlier moment – but that it gently, tenderly allows its characterizations and events to unfold, more like a flower than a timeline marked by eras and plot developments.

One example of the book’s unique treatment of time is the way in which events that would comprise the meat and potatoes of a conventional novel are often conflated into a sentence or paragraph, while the narrative itself focuses in detail on the interior lives of its characters.  Near the end of the book, Egan writes of a character we’ve seen both up-close and obliquely at various moments in her life, ”On another day more than twenty years after this one, after Sasha had gone to college and settled in new York; after she’d reconnected on Facebook with her college boyfriend and married late…and had two children, one of whom was slightly autistic; when she was like anyone, with a life that worried and electrified and overwhelmed her, Ted, long divorced – a grandfather – would visit Sasha at home in the California desert.”  That one sentence contains a whole Jonathan Franzen novel, but it is the tremendous accomplishment of A Visit from the Goon Squad that it doesn’t require this kind of conventional plot development and characterization to tell its emotionally real, sprawling story.

Instead, this novel – if it is a novel – plays with the conventions not just of time, but of narrative itself.  Written as a series of interlocking, non-linear vignettes with recurring characters and themes, it’s not even immediately clear that it can be called a novel.  Is it connected short stories? A new form?  Who knows and who cares?  The form is inextricable from its content, and meshes perfectly with the themes of time and linearity that are its central motifs.  The book also incorporates various genres, including journalism, speculative fiction, even a PowerPoint presentation, complicating our ability to classify it and calling into question the need for classification.  In the same way that it exists out of time, A Visit from the Goon Squad exists out of genre, playing happily with our notions of what a novel should be.

This joy in its own execution is part of what distinguishes this book from the angry realism of the early 2000s.  In this sense, Jennifer Egan also seems to be playing with some of the rigid and dogmatic ideas about the American novel that have been advanced in the last decade by some of its most prominent practitioners.  It doesn’t surprise me much that it is a woman writer who would challenge the parameters of the realist novel in such a playful, inclusive way.  It is often those writing on the margins (and if you do not think that American women novelists write from the margins, check this out) who are most clearly able to see the way forward, to incorporate disparate influences and minority voices and cultures into their work.  Michael Chabon, another pioneer of the anti-realist and genre novel, also consciously writes about marginal themes – even Yiddish, which is on the margins of the Jewish margins he represents.  In my mind, these are the American novels that are most of the moment – the ones that challenge our ideas about writing itself and bring us the unexpected, without dogma, without anger, and with the “careening hope” of both past and future Egan describes.

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