everything will last forever, now what?
When I was growing up, I thought that books and classical music were doomed. Classical music would be replaced by modern pop, and books would be replaced by movies and television.
This is not true. Books and classical music aren’t going anywhere. It is now incredibly easy to digitize and store culture; even obscure pieces of classical music will persist and will continue to be sold, simply because there’s no reason not to store them and offer them for sale.
Books, though, will survive for another reason besides easy storage. They are still the most compact form we have for transmitting analysis (i.e. thorough academic analysis), and for imagining what other people think. Even if movies and television had somehow been invented before books, we’d still have ended up with them, for the simple reason that what other people think is interesting. (In the case of a poem or memoir, of course, the author isn’t creating characters out of whole cloth, but the vicarious pleasure enjoyed by the reader is the same.)
Yes, some bestsellers, such as Twilight or The Da Vinci Code, are badly written. On the other hand, the current Zeitgeist text, The Hunger Games, is really delightful. It’s everything a book for teenagers should be, a mixture of sweetness and darkness that never condescends. The prose is simple but evocative.
The implications of this, when it comes to dystopian novels like Fahrenheit 451 or Brave New World, are pretty staggering. To the degree that these books attempt to be “prophetic warnings” about the future, they are hopelessly wrong. That doesn’t mean they’re bad literature, exactly; instead, it means that we need to read them in a different way. Just like the rest of the literary canon, these books are value statements. They encapsulate fantasies. Suppose one were to ask about the primal fantasy in Bradbury’s novel: well, it comes right at the end. Bradbury is fantasizing not about the destruction of books, but about people who care so deeply about certain books that they have committed them to memory. In other words, once you get beyond the futurism, Bradbury’s approach to literature is similar to that of a realist like Henry David Thoreau, who proposed (in Walden) that nobody should own more than a handful of books.
Oddly enough, most of the contemporary novels I’ve been reading seem to be about the end of literature…which, at the risk of repeating myself, is never going to arrive. It’s a common thread linking The Marriage Plot, Super Sad True Love Story, and Leaving the Atocha Station, and unfortunately it makes them less successful than they might have been otherwise. The apocalyptic future, in which nobody cares about books, is an easy way of a) artificially raising the stakes and b) distracting the reader from everything else that’s going on in the text.
The most old-fashioned of the three books is probably The Marriage Plot. I’ve already written on it, so I’ll make this brief. The primal fantasy, for Eugenides, is the religious (re-)turn. Of the three main characters, one (Mitchell) goes to India on a religious quest, and another (Leonard) is bipolar, a condition that Eugenides represents as a marriage of heaven and hell. When Leonard is hypomanic, he is blessed, and when he is manic or depressed, he is damned. The problem for Eugenides is that religion embarrasses him (and therefore his major female character, Madeleine). He yearns for it and his characters yearn for it, but their stolid middle- and upper-class temperaments are unsuited for it, and they flee back to the safety of privilege and worldliness.
The Marriage Plot is already obsolete. The kind of religious yearning that Eugenides is talking about is still fashionable, but it’s getting less embarrassed all the time. Having spent years now studying the influence of Christianity on modernism, I can say that all of this is old hat; what will be new, I predict, will be how many intellectuals actually convert (as T. S. Eliot did) or try to start new religions. The novel’s most useful insight is that marriage is on its way out. I know that may seem like a ridiculous statement, or else an obvious one coming from a divorced person, but I sincerely believe it (and, my beliefs aside, the novel says the same thing). Marriage used to be sustained by the economic value of children and the biology of sex without contraception; in the developed world, these conditions no longer apply, despite the best efforts of the Republican Party. The only thing that really holds the institution together, now, is how committed we are to raising children within a nuclear family. Monogamous romantic love is a fascinating and powerful construct, but it’s losing the battle against the real conditions of post-industrial work, which compels people to travel and move constantly.
Super Sad True Love Story is, I think, supposed to be set in the dystopian future, but it’s not dystopian at all. Shteyngart imagines a world in which our current obsessions with social networking (and the resultant loss of privacy) have continued to progress. Everything is blogged, everyone is a journalist, all personal qualities are judged and ranked. By “personal qualities,” I mean “fuckability,” money, personality, and so on. There is no longer a dividing line between offensive speech and ordinary speech — think of what will happen to speech when “un-PC” comedy has been around, not for a decade, but for as long as anyone can remember.
Shteyngart loves all this. The novel is semi-epistolary; consider this e-mail from the early part of the book:
Now for Grillbitch’s patent advice: Go with him to Lucca, where is that exactly?, treat him like shit during the first day, let him fuck you HARD the first night, then leave him completely confused the rest of the time. He’ll fall for you pronto, especially after you let him plunder your MAGIC PUSSY!!! And on the way back to Rome be all nice, so that he’s left with a good impression but still not sure of himself. So here’s what’s up here. This Filipino guy had a party in Redondo. Pat Alvarez, do you remember him from Catholic? And Wendy Snatch showed up in Onionskin jeans and a nippleless Saaami bra and then she starts grinding on Gopher’s lap. He was like trying to push her off but she said maybe you want me and your girlfriend to thresh each other and all the time she is practically POKING his eye out with her nipple, which is one of those big fat pink DISGUSTING white girls nips. So Gopher’s looking at me with this expression, like, yeah, you can thresh each other if you want too or not that’s totally cool just don’t make a scene. And anyway all these Flip girls who just graduated from UC Irvine are threshing the shit out of each other in the living room trying to impress some white guy (not Gopher) so I teened her like I DON’T THINK SO, WENDY SNATCH. Only I didn’t say it in CAPS, it was more like no thank you and that’s my BOYFRIEND’S crotch you’re humping. And she actually came up to me PHYSICALLY and VERBALLED me like “Oh, I thought you were a lez cause you went to Elderbird, I didn’t know you were a feminazi too” and I was like “Yeah, but even if I was the biggest lez in America I wouldn’t thresh you with a fucking combine” and then guess where she ended up by the end of the party? In the bathtub getting ass-reamed and face-pissed by Pat Alvarez and three of his friends who taped everything and then put it on GlobalTeens the next day. GUESS how high her ratings went up? Personality 764 and Fuckability 800+. What is WRONG with people?
As my friend Brendan McGuigan put it, “I have friends on the East Coast who earn a living as writers, and they don’t even write me emails this long or this vibrant.” Look beyond the swearing and the futuristic swearing, and he’s absolutely right. Super Sad True Love Story is full of characters drunk on language, whether they realize it or not, and that’s what makes it (almost) great. Even this one letter is much longer than what I’ve quoted above.
At the same time, the reason the novel is not actually great is that the dystopian set-up brings all these enjoyable e-mails to a crashing halt, and what takes over is an immensely boring story of a hot Asian girl –in this case, that’s more accurate than “woman,” considering her age — with a troubled past, being chased by two guys, a “nice guy” and an alpha male. (Spoiler alert: she chooses the alpha male, but she’ll always remember the sweetness the other guy showed her.) Shteyngart comes across as unpleasantly Humbert Humbert-esque, with none of the careful ironies that Nabokov used to distance himself from the text of Lolita. In other words, when the book is a literary fantasy, it’s wonderful. When it becomes a sexual fantasy trying to justify itself on dystopian grounds, it’s annoying.
All of which brings us to the final novel, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, which is (like The Marriage Plot) ostensibly set in the present-day (or, rather, slightly in the past, at the time of the terrorist attack in Madrid). The narrator walks around Madrid, smoking pot and chugging Adderall, writing bad postmodern poems and making absurd postmodern statements as a member of several “panels” on “literature.” He talks about how literature is contradiction, about “tension” rather than resolution. His poems are sort of “found” poems. Sometimes, they’re just autobiography made deliberately obscure.
So here’s where he ends up, and what makes this one more novel about the end of all literature:
I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it. And yet when I imagined the total victory of those other things over poetry, when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium, without the sort of absurd ritual I’d participated in that evening, then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.
Literature is, to the protagonist, sort of akin to the nubbin of dirt that irritates an oyster and, eventually, produces a pearl. In the end, the nubbin vanishes within layer upon layer of beautiful socializing.
When I read Leaving the Atocha Station, I enjoyed it quite a bit, because it made me nostalgic for the parties the MFAs at UC Irvine used to throw. The dirty little secret of our MFA program (and, probably, every MFA program) is that only a handful of the writers were any good. I’ll name names: Michael Andreason, Mona Ausubel, Michelle Chihara, Abby Gambrel, Izzy Prcic, Zanni Schauffler. (There were, admittedly, a few others who really were very good, and whose names I’ve now forgotten. But we’re talking about maybe three other people.) Ausubel is already getting the recognition she deserves, and the rest of them will as well, if they continue to write and to publish. So basically everybody else there was, in my opinion, not good, but they were all fantastic partiers. A lot of PhD students attended these parties; we’d pretend we thought all of them were good writers, and they’d pretend not to think that we were lesser beings because we were critics, rather than creators.
You could count on them to say all kinds of outrageous, wonderful things. One guy spent an entire hour telling me stuff like this: “You used to be something, but you’ve PISSED IT ALL AWAY. Haven’t you? Admit it, you’ve kind of pissed it away a little here, and a little there, and now it’s gone. You’ve pissed it away. You’ve pissed it all, all away.” He never revealed whether he was talking about my literary talent, or my true self, or my creative spark, or what, exactly, but he was utterly convinced by his own words, and it was generally a great night all ’round.
On the other hand, my friends who read the book with me had no parties to reminisce about. When they got to the end of the book, they were just frustrated. The final sentence: “Then I planned to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by my friends.” My friend Sven complained, “So I guess that’s it, huh? Because the greatest thing now is to hang out with friends, that’s the ultimate.” Lerner suggests that the whole point of poetry is basically that it’s a sorting mechanism for finding the right friends. It’s only indispensable because, for whatever mysterious reason, if poetry didn’t exist, neither would these wonderful social circles.
As with Eugenides and Shteyngart, this is a really banal fantasy that crowds out anything else the book might have accomplished or been trying to say. Lerner takes cover behind the overblown image of the narrator killing himself if poetry goes extinct.
It’s a shame, though. You can’t enjoy, for even a second, the book’s universe of postmodern theory and literature. It’s inherently off-putting, and worse, the narrator constantly tells his readers that it’s all a bunch of insincere crap, at least when he articulates it. Reading the book certainly doesn’t give you a ticket to these wonderful social events, and in my opinion, there are some good reasons to question how meaningful the wild nights actually are. I’m not even friends on Facebook, much less in real life, with the majority of the MFAs who I used to drink with. That’s why it was so easy for me to tell you, just now, who I actually thought could write.
What lasts are the words. We ought to make them as good as we possibly can. Instead of threatening readers with the end of literature, it is enough to tell them something unexpected and true about your life, and theirs, and everyone’s — no matter how many friends they have, or how many hawt threshing sessions…no matter how much faith they’ve been able to keep safe from the world.