“New American fiction” is, to my mind, immediately and unhappily equivalent to new American short fiction. And yet I think the American short story is a dead form, unnaturally perpetuated, as Lukács once wrote of the chivalric romance, “by purely formal means, after the transcendental conditions for its existence have already been condemned by the historico-philosophical dialectic.” Having exhausted the conditions for its existence, the short story continues to be propagated in America by a purely formal apparatus: by the big magazines, which, if they print fiction at all, sandwich one short story per issue between features and reviews; and by workshop-based creative writing programs and their attendant literary journals. Today’s short stories all seem to bear an invisible check mark, the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory; the very sentences are animated by some kind of vegetable consciousness: “I worked for Kristin,” they seem to say, or “Jeff thought I was fucking hilarious.” Meanwhile, the ghosts of deleted paragraphs rattle their chains from the margins.
In the name of science, I recently read from cover to cover the Best American Short Stories anthologies of 2004 and 2005. Many of these stories seemed to have been pared down to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns. An indiscriminate premium has been placed on the particular, the tactile, the “crisp,” and the “tart”—as if literary worth should be calibrated by resemblance to an apple (or, in the lingo of hyperspecificity, a McIntosh). Writers appear to be trying to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words. The result is celebrated as “lean,” “tight,” “well-honed” prose.
One of the by-products of hyperspecificity is a preponderance of proper names. For maximum specificity and minimum word count, names can’t be beat. Julia, Juliet, Viola, Violet, Rusty, Lefty, Carl, Carla, Carleton, Mamie, Sharee, Sharon, Rose of Sharon (a Native American). In acknowledgment of the times, the 2004 and 2005 volumes each contain exactly one Middle East story, each featuring a character called Hassan. I found these names annoying, universally so. I was no less annoyed by John Briggs or John Hillman than by Sybil Mildred Clemm Legrand Pascal, who invites the reader to call her Miss Sibby. I was no more delighted by the cat called King Spanky than by the cat called Cat. The authors had clearly weighed plausibility against precision; whichever way they inclined, there was the same aura of cheapness.
Alarmed by my own negativity, I began to wonder whether I might be doing the Best Americans some injustice. For a point of comparison, I reread a few stories by Chekhov, who is still the ostensible role model for American “short-fiction practitioners.” (Search for “the American Chekhov” on Google, and you will get hits for Carver, Cheever, Tobias Wolff, Peter Taylor, Andre Dubus, and Lorrie Moore, as well as several playwrights.) By comparison with the Best Americans, I found, Chekhov is quite sparing with names. In “Lady with Lapdog,” Gurov’s wife gets a few lines of dialogue, but no name. Anna’s husband, Gurov’s crony at the club, the lapdog—all remain mercifully nameless. Granted, Chekhov was writing from a different point in the historico-philosophical dialectic: a character could be called “Gurov’s wife,” “the bureaucrat,” or “the lackey,” and nobody would take it as a political statement. The Best Americans are more democratic. Every last clerk, child, and goat has a name.
Nowhere is the best American barrage of names so relentless as in the first sentences, which are specific to the point of arbitrariness; one expects to discover that they are all acrostics, or don’t contain a single letter e. They all begin in medias res. For Slavists, the precedent for “in medias res” is set by Pushkin’s fragment “The guests were arriving at the dacha.” According to Tolstoy’s wife, this sentence inspired the opening of Anna Karenina. Would Pushkin have managed to inspire anybody at all had he written: “The night before Countess Maria Ivanovna left for Baden Baden, a drunken coachman crashed the Mirskys’ troika into the Pronskys’ dacha”? He would not.
Pushkin knew that it is neither necessary nor desirable for the first sentence of a literary work to answer the “five w’s and one h.” Many of the Best Americans assume this perverse burden. The result is not just in medias res, but in-your-face in medias res, a maze of names, subordinate clauses, and minor collisions: “The morning after her granddaughter’s frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead”; “Graves had been sick for three days when, on the long, straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of orange-yellow sparks.” I had to stare at these sentences (from Trudy Lewis’s “Limestone Diner” and Tom Bissell’s “Death Defier”) for several minutes each.
A first line like “Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner” is supposed to create the illusion that the reader already knows Lorraine, knows about her usual coffee, and, thus, cares why Lorraine has violated her routine. It’s like a confidence man who rushes up and claps you on the shoulder, trying to make you think you already know him.
Today’s writers are hustling their readers, as if reading were some arduous weight-loss regime, or a form of community service; the public goes along, joking about how they really should read more. Oprah uses identical rhetoric to advocate reading and fitness; Martha Nussbaum touts literature as an exercise regime for compassion. Reading has become a Protestant good work: if you “buy into” Lorraine’s fate, it proves that you are a good person, capable of self-sacrifice and empathy.
Another popular technique for waylaying the reader is the use of specificity as a shortcut to nostalgia—as if all a writer has to do is mention Little League or someone called Bucky McGee, and our shared American past will do the rest of the work. Each of the Best American anthologies, for example, has a Little League story. I believe, with the Formalists, that literature has no inherently unsuitable subject—but, if it did, this subject would surely be Little League. Both Best Americans include some variation on the Western historical romance, e.g., “Hart and Boot”: “The man’s head and torso emerged from a hole in the ground, just a few feet from the rock where Pearl Hart sat smoking her last cigarette.” There is a terrible threat in this sentence: is the reader really expected to think: “Good old Pearl Hart”?
The best of the Best Americans are still the old masters—Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, John Updike—writers who comply with the purpose of the short-story form: namely, telling a short story. This sounds trivial, but isn’t. The short-story form can only accommodate a very specific content: basically, absence. Missing persons, missed opportunities, very brief encounters, occuring in the margins of “Life Itself”: when the content is minimalist, then it makes sense to follow the short-fiction dictates: condense, delete, omit.
Novels, like short stories, are often about absences; but they are based on information overload. A short story says, “I looked for x, and didn’t find it,” or, “I was not looking anymore, and then I found x.” A novel says, “I looked for x, and found a, b, c, g, q, r, and w.” The novel consists of all the irrelevant garbage, the effort to redeem that garbage, to integrate it into Life Itself, to redraw the boundaries of Life Itself. The novel is a fundamentally ironic form; hence its power of self-regeneration. The short story is a fundamentally unironic form, and for this reason I think it is doomed.
When the available literary forms no longer match the available real-life content, the novel can reabsorb the mismatch and use it as material. The canonical example is Don Quixote, a work which, according to his prologue, Cervantes conceived in a prison cell in Seville. Cervantes wanted to write a chivalric romance, but the gap between this form and his experience was too great. Then he broke through the formal “prison”: he made the gap the subject of a book.
Many of the Best American stories are set in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. They are trying to break out, but I don’t think they will. One of the most interesting contributions, Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals,” is about a family who moves into a new house that, very gradually, turns out to be “haunted.” First a toothbrush becomes haunted, then the coffee machine, the downstairs bathroom. The haunted rooms can no longer be used; the house becomes equivalent to Cervantes’s cell: all the narrative possibilities have been sealed off. The family has less and less space in which to live. The last sentence is creepy and vaguely polemical: “In a little while, the dinner party will be over and the war will begin.” Indeed, let the war begin.
Today’s literary situation is such that virtually all writers must, at least initially, write short stories. Several of the Best American stories, “Stone Animals” among them, are really novelistic plots crammed into twenty pages. The short story is trying to expand into a catchall genre. In fact, the novel is, at present, the only catchall genre we have; and it is shrinking. Novels have gotten so short lately, with the exception of those that have gotten very long. Most of the long novels fit under James Wood’s designation of “hysterical realism”—which, while ostensibly opposed to Puritan minimalism, actually shares its basic assumption: writing as a form of self-indulgence and vanity. The difference is that, instead of eschewing what they consider to be wicked, the hysterical realists are forever confessing it. The recursions of David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers—“I confess that I, reprehensibly, want to be loved; this very confession is another reprehensible ploy to make you love me”—are a dreary Catholic riposte to a dreary Protestant attack. It would be equally productive for every writer to start every book with an apology for cutting down trees which could have been put to better use building houses for the homeless; followed by a second apology for the paper consumed by the first apology.
Here is the crux of the problem, the single greatest obstacle to American literature today: guilt. Guilt leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence. Writers, feeling guilty for not doing real work, that mysterious activity—where is it? On Wall Street, at Sloane-Kettering, in Sudan?—turn in shame to the notion of writing as “craft.” (If art is aristocratic, decadent, egotistical, self-indulgent, then craft is useful, humble, ascetic, anorexic—a form of whittling.) “Craft” solicits from them constipated “vignettes”—as if to say: “Well, yes, it’s bad, but at least there isn’t too much of it.” As if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits. As if writers became writers by omitting needless words.
American novelists are ashamed to find their own lives interesting; all the rooms in the house have become haunted, the available subjects have been blocked off. What remains to be written about? (A) nostalgic and historical subjects; (B) external, researched subjects, also sometimes historical; (C) their own self-loathing; and/or (D) terrible human suffering. For years, Lorrie Moore has only written about cancer. In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers implies that anyone who does not find his story compelling is unsympathetic to cancer victims; he describes in gory detail how he plans to eviscerate such people, how he plans to be eviscerated by them in turn. For writers who aren’t into cancer, there is the Holocaust, and of course the items can be recombined: cancer and the Holocaust, cancer and American nostalgia, the Holocaust and American nostalgia.
For the last combination, you can’t do better than Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, with its memorable opening sentence:
In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.
All the elements are there: the nicknames, the clauses, the five w’s, the physical imprisonment, the nostalgia. (As if a fictional character could have a “greatest creation” by the first sentence—as if he were already entitled to be “holding forth” to “fans.”) Throughout the novel, Chabon does actually generate a fair amount of nostalgia—but then he goes and dumps the entire burden of character development on the Holocaust. Joe Kavalier is a master magician, an escape artist, a writer of fabulous comic books, a charismatic and fundamentally mysterious person—until, that is, Chabon explains to us that the reason Kavalier became an escape artist was to escape from Hitler. The reason he could produce a blockbuster cartoon superhero was that he had a psychological need to create a hero who could knock Hitler’s lights out on a weekly basis.
W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz has a nearly identical premise, minus the American nostalgia. It, too, features an authorial stand-in, à la Sam Clay, who finds in some other person a source of narrative. Austerlitz is, like Kavalier, a human enigma who disappears for years on end, leaving trails of clues; in the end, the “solution” is nothing other than the Final Solution. Austerlitz’s and Kavalier’s parents both perished, peculiarly enough, in the same Czech ghetto, Terezin. Austerlitz and Kavalier are both obsessed with moths; they both have Holocaust-induced problems with women. (Austerlitz’s one love affair, with a woman called Marie, fizzles out during a trip to Marienbad, where he is oppressed by an inexplicable terror; later we understand that it’s because he is actually Jewish, and his parents were killed in the Holocaust, and once they went on vacation to Marienbad.)
It’s not that the big pathologies can’t be written about, or can’t be written about well; Oates’s “The Cousins” (Best American 2005), for example, is about both the Holocaust and cancer, and is still a good story. It consists of the letters between two cousins, aging women: one survived the Holocaust and became a famous writer, the other grew up in America and became a retiree in Florida. They were supposed to meet as children, but never did. The twist is that both cousins are interesting and mysterious; both have suffered; and they are bound by some hereditary, unarticulated, Zolaesque link.
Among the novelists who write about the Second World War, I confess that my favorite is Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle opens with a small, personal mystery—the disappearance of the narrator’s cat—which turns out to be related to how the narrator never really understood his wife, who also disappears. The two disappearances are subsequently linked to the occupation of Manchuria, the torture killing of a Japanese soldier, and various other personal and global events. The narrator is moved by all the big historical themes that pass through the novel, but he suffers more immediately from the loss of his cat—as in Brueghel’s picture of the farmer ploughing his field while Icarus drowns. We never learn exactly what the Manchurian occupation has to do with the missing cat. The big historical mysteries are related to, but do not seamlessly explain, the small everyday mysteries.
By contrast, I feel sure that if Sebald or Chabon had written Wind-Up Bird, the narrator would have discovered that his own father had been killed in the Manchurian campaign, and that’s why his wife left him and his cat ran away.
Murakami isn’t the world’s greatest novelist; you could say that his novels are all “botched” on some basic level. The turns in the plot are often achieved unsatisfyingly, by dreams, or by a character deciding to sit in the bottom of a well; the narrators receive an inordinate amount of oral sex from bizarrely dressed middle-aged women. But botchedness also gives Murakami’s novels a quixotic dynamism. Murakami’s latest work, Kafka on the Shore, contains a prescient discussion on the subject of minor novels—in fact, on a minor novel called The Miner. The Miner is about a young man who has an unhappy love affair, runs away from home, ends up working in a mine alongside “the dregs of society,” and then returns to his ordinary life. “Nothing in the novel shows he learned anything from these experiences, that his life changed, that he thought deeply now about the meaning of life or started questioning society,” Murakami’s narrator explains: it is completely unclear why the author decided to write The Miner—which makes it particularly valuable to the narrator, by virtue of its very openness.
Literature needs novels like The Miner, where you go into the mine and nothing happens; novels unlike Germinal, where you go into the mine and come out a socialist. Perhaps modern American literature has kept the worst parts of Zola. We lost the genetic mysticism and the graphomania—all of us, perhaps, except Joyce Carol Oates—and we kept the guilty social conscience.
Dear American writers, break out of the jail! Sell the haunted house, convert it to tourist villas. Puncture “the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn New York.” Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things. Dear young writers, write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.