Solzhenitsyn, Truth, & the Dismal Fate of Literature in the 21st Century, Part III
Copyright © 2009 by Diana E. Sheets
What, then, can be said about the dismal fate of Literature in the 21st century? How might fiction be appraised in light of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's imperative to bear witness and Czeslaw Milosz's assessment that in storytelling only "a clearly delineated human form enables us to distinguish between the real and the unreal" (Nobel Lecture, The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings 1947-2005, eds. Edward W. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel F. Mahoney, ISI Books, 2006, 520, 523-4; Czeslaw Milosz, "Questions," Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials, eds. John B. Dunlop, Richard Haugh, and Alexis Klimoff, Nordland Publishing Company, 1973, 449).
Let us begin with the literary writer Jonathan Safran Foer and his debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated (Harper Perennial, 2002). As with Proust's In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927), Everything is Illuminated features its author, Jonathan Safran Foer, as a fictional character. It is a novelistic rendering of his unsuccessful four-day trip to the Ukraine. Then barely nineteen and clutching a photograph of the young woman reputed to have saved his grandfather Safran's life, Jonathan hoped to discover how she enabled his namesake to escape the Nazis.
There are two narratives in Everything is Illuminated. One is the fictive memoir comically presented through letters from the young Ukrainian guide, Alexander "Alex" Perchov, replete with words creatively misapplied, to the narrator. Alex enlists his reputedly blind grandfather and bitch pooch, Sammy Davis, Junior, as participants in this detective thriller. Reflecting Foer's actual experience, the foursome never succeeds in finding Augustine or learning the true circumstances that gave rise to the family saga. Embedded in Everything Is Illuminated is a second story, a novella-in-process written by the narrator in a style meant to evoke the magical realism of Márquez and, by implication, Chagall. This tale traces the family saga from 1791 until 1941 when the Nazis destroyed the shtetl in which Jonathan's family resided. Rescued by Augustine, Safran survives and immigrates to America where he dies soon after.
Everything Is Illuminated is a self-reflexive novel chronicling the author's/character's journey toward enlightenment. It is a memory story saturated in identity politics framed against the backdrop of the Holocaust. It is "smart" and cloying and manipulative and drenched in victimhood. Everything Is Illuminated pays homage to Proust and Márquez. Its "then" and "now" memory structure and fractured timeline borrow from Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia (1993). But as literary fiction it offers no real truths or authentic history, although it manipulates the reader's emotions by invoking the specter of the Holocaust. We know Jonathan has suffered because he is Jewish and his family lost relatives in the Holocaust. Sad to say, this stratagem succeeds. But not for everyone. For as Harry Siegel noted, "The book struck me as an admixture of shtick and sentiment, the most self-involved work about the Holocaust since Maus" ("Extremely Cloying & Incredibly False: Why the author of Everything Is Illuminated is a fraud and a hack," http://www.nypress.com/article-11418-extremely-cloying-incredibly-false.html).
Foer's second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), presents the story of a nine-year-old boy, Oscar Schell, who struggles to overcome the trauma associated with the death of his father as a result of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. As befitting our feminized, child-obsessed, and victimized culture, we dwell within the consciousness of Oscar. It is not a pleasant experience. Our French-speaking boy wonder corresponds with Stephen Hawking. The author would have us believe the boy is wiser than adults. He struggles with "heavy boots" (depression) that cause him to engage in "zipping myself into the sleeping bag of myself." Here is a virtuous boy (we know this because he is a vegan) who, as a result of this catastrophe, is now engaging in self-abuse ("I gave myself a bruise"). The story ends on a hopeful note with a flip-book reversing the images of a man who has fallen from the World Trade Towers so that it appears he ascends upward back to the safety of those now reconfigured buildings (Siegel). Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close evokes associations with the fiction of Sebald, Borges, Calvino, Auster (Siegel), and Günter Grass ("The Book Club: New Books Dissected Over E-mail," Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer vs. Günter Grass, From Ruth Franklin to Meghan O'Rourke, Slate Magazine, March 30, 2005, http://www.slate.com/id/2115207/entry/2115918). The author insists we know his literary pedigree while shamelessly exploiting the child-victim narrative for profit and literary fame. Even the tragedy of the Dresden firebombings and the nuclear attack on Hiroshima are invoked by the author in his efforts to sustain this veil of tears (John Updike, "Mixed Messages," The New Yorker, March 14, 2005, Vol. 81, Issue 4, 138-140).
Foer's novels are emblematic of the fiction abetted and fostered by the professionalized novel-writing "factories" pioneered by the Iowa Writers' Workshop and now de-rigueur for aspiring authors expecting to have their stories published. Fiction, struggling to persevere by the 1970's, had already been overshadowed by movies, television, and "New Journalism" (http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/4; http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/15). By the late nineties the triumph of the visual media and confessional memoir had ushered in a second orality (http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/9; http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/42). The Internet and market forces have dictated the triumph of "little me" and the up-market proliferation of comic books now celebrated as "graphic novels." All that remained for literary fiction was the genteel affectation of "consciousness," now virtually synonymous with solipsism, a domain hostile to truth and reality and now saturated with estrogen (http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/5). The outcome is obvious: booklists weeping in sentimentality, trembling in postmodern intensity, and dripping in false virtue.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers, realism leaked back into fiction. But in the age of misguided empathy, what type of story-telling was celebrated? By way of example, consider Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Harcourt, Inc., 2007). Here is a novel of consciousness that reveals the innumerable slights and humiliations that propel Islamic believers to embrace extreme fundamentalism and, by extension, terrorism. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was nominated for the prestigious 2007 Man Booker Prize, Britain's top literary prize. The novel offers a sustained interior monologue of Changez, a young man sitting at a café in Lahore, Pakistan. In his ruminations we learn that Changez received a scholarship to attend Princeton University. He excelled academically, obtaining a coveted job in a firm specializing in global business appraisals—experiences familiar to Hamid since he studied at Princeton before working as a consultant for McKinsey & Company (Jane Perlez, "A Pakistani-American Voice in Search of a True Home," The New York Times, October 13, 2007, A4).
Now, a broken man, Changez has returned to live in Lahore, Pakistan. His life appears devoid of purpose. His monologue is seemingly addressed to a silent man sitting nearby. Depending on your perspective these ruminations might be any one of the following: the deranged thoughts of a psychotic man; an indirect address to you, the potentially sympathetic reader; a conversational entreaty to a CIA operative nearby who is carefully monitoring the actions and associations of Changez.
But to a Westerner who dons the cloak of objectivity, what is remarkable about the "protagonist" is that in a few short years the normal slights and indignities that any Westerner encounters have succeeded in destabilizing Changez. Each psychic wound builds upon the other until fundamentalism bleeds into terrorism. Never does Changez ask himself the most troubling questions. How has Pakistan failed its people? How has it come to pass that Pakistan has become so economically bankrupt and educationally bereft? What are the causes enabling the West and neighboring India to surge ahead while Pakistan falls further and further behind? And, above all, why has Changez refused to consider that the people of Pakistan may be largely responsible for their own misery?
But Changez never confronts these vexing questions. Instead, he engages in transference. Yet what is the source of his grievance? As the novel demonstrates, no discrimination occurred. Changez was welcomed at Princeton. After graduation, he obtained a coveted job. His boss actively supported him. His misfortune was to fall in love with the wealthy and beautiful Erica, a fellow Princetonian who never recovered from the death of her first love. Thus, Changez became involved with a woman undergoing a breakdown. She was incapable of reciprocating his feelings. These unintentional slights—and undoubtedly hundreds more—propel him to embrace fundamentalism. Erica, of course, symbolizes the beautiful, wealthy, and decadent America that beguiles Muslims but ultimately rejects them. The reader inhabits the consciousness of Changez. We feel his humiliation, his shame, his rage. We begin to see the world through his distorting prism of hate. In this fundamentalist hall of mirrors, Changez is innocent and America implicated if not legally or ethically then certainly psychically. It is for this reason Changez smiles upon learning of the destruction of the World Trade owers, thereby revealing his support for the terrorists if not his complicity.
Next, let us consider John Updike's novel Terrorist (Knopf, 2006), which presents the story of Ahmad, an eighteen-year-old boy-man whose absent father is Egyptian and his mother a free-spirited Irish-American. Ahmad is bright, sensitive, and angry. He embraces first Islam and later fundamentalism. He is eventually recruited as a suicide bomber whose mission is to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel, although at the last moment his former high school counselor, a Jewish man, intercedes and dissuades him. Despite Updike's implausible conclusion—that an understanding Jewish Liberalcan communicate with and dissuade an Arab-American boy-man intent on committing an act of terrorism—the underlying message of both Terrorist and The Reluctant Fundamentalist is clear: readers must empathize with would be terrorists. To do less is to reveal their ethnocentric barbarism. These are the novels celebrated by the literary establishment. Readers are indoctrinated in political correctness and Western guilt. They are expected to empathize with those who would harm America.
Because Updike never succeeds in presenting Ahmad as a fully believable character, the reader never truly inhabits the consciousness of a young man about to destroy the lives of others (Christopher Hitchens, "No Way," The Atlantic, June, 2006, Vol. 297, Issue 5, 114-7). Hamid, to his credit, has written the better novel. But the principal question with which Literary Gulag is concerned is the following: Why are the political sympathies of writers, agents, editors, publishers, and academics directed toward ensuring that praise, nominations, and awards be given to these types of decadent and destructive stories? Their reasoning is clear: Changez is a victim. He is damaged. He deserves our sympathy even if he harbors a deep hatred of America and would support others who would harm us. Certainly, the publisher has the right to publish this story. But why are these types of literary novels being selected these days to the exclusion of all others? Consider the following. If novels depicting Arabs as hateful and villainous and, by extension, if they encouraged Americans to embrace religious or ethnic cleansing, would those books be celebrated? Would they be fast tracked for consideration for the Man Booker or the National Book Critics Circle Award or the National Book Award or the Pulitzer or the Nobel? Therein lies the hypocrisy.
But it is not just the novels set against the backdrop of 9/11 or acts of terrorism that inhabit this subjective realm of literary virtue. Stories garnering praise or prizes today must be encapsulated within identity politics or victimhood or inhabit child-centric domains suffused with faux innocence—all of which female readers deem worthy of empathy. Consider, for example, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, a short-story cycle awarded the Pulitzer Prize (2000). It presents the story of the Indian Diaspora and, by inference, the resistance of the characters to assimilation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpreter_of_Maladies). It is technically well crafted, although there is a smoldering domesticity that diminishes its ties to the real world, thereby lessening its import. Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss aims higher, although in terms of story effectiveness and technique, achieves less. Nevertheless, the latter won the 2006 Man Booker Prize and the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. But the success of this novel is predicated on Desai's moral denunciation of the West, a judgment certain to elicit the sympathies of the literati. As Pankaj Mishra notes, "Almost all of Desai's characters have been stunted by their encounters with the West." The novel, he suggests, is skeptical of multiculturalism or what Salman Rushdie refers to as its "hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs" (Pankaj Mishra, "Wounded by the West," The New York Times Book Review, February 12, 2006, 11).
In an era when literary fiction is imbued with nothing if not identity politics, reader take note that none of these characters assimilate. Today, there is no melting pot. Instead, immigrants and ethnic groups retain their distinctive identities while resisting aspirational American values. Contrast the novels mentioned above with Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, a quintessential novel of the Chicago immigrant experience. Note Augie's boastful declaration that begins the novel: "I am an American, Chicago born . . . and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way…." (Penguin Books, 1996, 3; http://www.saulbellow.org/NovelOverviews/AugieMarch.html).
Consider also that the literary novel's infatuation with genteel WASP stories officially ended this year with the death of John Updike. Take note that WASP entitlement today now applies to all stories written about Caucasian characters, except those saturated in victimhood or transgendered politics here defined as homosexual narratives, bi-sexual narratives, and narratives in which the characters are sexually ambiguous (by way of example the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides).
The rise in ethnic fiction is not without benefit. Certainly, there was a period when publishers featured the fiction of WASP, Catholic, and Jewish writers to the detriment of other narratives. (Today these writers are more likely to be Latin American men whose fiction is deemed demanding or experimental.) But consider the consequence of exempting Caucasian stories from Anglo-American literary fiction, except in those instances where they represent socially marginalized characters (as, for example, in the novel by British author Mark Haddon, A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, published in 2003, in which victimhood, boyhood, autism, and consciousness are encapsulated into one empathy-saturated package). These increasingly politicized stories are advanced by publishers who favor fables of "social justice" and politically correct content at the expense of reality. Consequently, the American novel that strives to be panoramic in scope, towering in impact, and mesmerizing in its implications because it dares to present disturbing truths is no longer published (http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/6).
Literary Gulag concludes Part III of this essay by considering two novels by emerging writers that, to varying degrees, are engaged with the world: Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision (2005) and Aravind Adiga's, The White Tiger (2008). Both are, in a manner of speaking, parables and bildungsromans.
Indecision is the story of Dwight Wilmerding, an iconic representative of America's young, affluent men born of Generation X (1961-1981, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_X) who are feminized (nominally sensitive, caring, non-aggressive, resembling women, except that they have significantly more sexual partners). These urbanites are, with respect to their dads, downwardly mobile (a 12% decline as measured by adjusted real earnings, Wiki/Generation X), unable to afford their own apartments, reluctant to marry, and resistant to fatherhood. Dwight and his cohorts are in a state of arrested development, loathe to assume responsibilities or, indeed, to make any decisions at all. Thus, our protagonist Dwight is the 21st century Holden Caulfield who has nominally matured to age twenty-eight (Jay McInerney, "Getting It Together," The New York Times Book Review, August 28, 2005, 1, 12). Watching this boy-man is both amusing and painful. Never is the term anomie more aptly applied. This dude, and his generation, is clueless. His best hope is "hooking up" with a long-term partner whose earning powers equals or exceeds his own.
Dwight, as the Publisher's Weekly review noted, is a "down-market prepster" (252.28, July 18, 2005, 180). He is fired from his job as a contractor working for Pfizer. He lives with other young men in an apartment that resembles a boys-club. Dwight is convinced he is afflicted with "Aboulia," a neurological condition that renders an individual unable to make decisions. He is sexually attracted to his sister, who is far more successful than he. He has a girlfriend from India, although he leaves her to travel to South America where, by the novel's conclusion, we are coaxed to believe that Dwight may have, to some degree, matured. However, from the perspective of this omniscient reviewer, let it be said that Dwight, despite the new Belgian girlfriend and his newly acquired political radicalism—disingenuously mirroring the beliefs of his current partner—has shown no real development at all. He is just marking time until events transpire to send him home again.
The author, Benjamin Kunkel, is Harvard educated and obtained his MFA from Columbia University's prestigious postgraduate program. He is one of the founding editors of the literary magazine N+1. Indecision captures the voice and consciousness of the urbanized, college-educated men that define Generation X. Kunkel has perfect pitch. However, without his impeccable "credentials" it is arguable whether even this book, these days, would have found a publisher, let alone garnered the tremendous praise it received. Indecision is a coming-of-age story about one boy-man emblematic of an entire generation. Its feeble efforts to affix a politically correct conclusion fail miserably. Thankfully, this is not a story about victims: it is a story about dudes. Kunkel, unlike Foer, has neither subjected the reader to a Proustian reincarnation of "little me" nor created precocious New Yorkers who, in the aftermath of 9/11, all exhibit the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
By contrast, The White Tiger is a novel more fully engaged with the world. It presents the story of the "economic miracle" of India from the perspective of the protagonist Balram Halwai. A white tiger, "the rarest creature in the jungle," comes along only "once in every generation" (Richard Marcus, "The White Tiger," BlogCritics Magazine, May 2, 2008, http://blogcritics.org/archives/2008/05/02/120029.php). Balram, who has little formal education, becomes a driver for the son of a feudal landlord residing in Delhi. After a host of indignities and narrowly escaping a lifetime jail sentence for the hit-and-run murder committed by the wife of his boss, Balram kills his employer. He then steals a satchel filled with money that enables him to relocate to Bangalore, the center of the India's technology boom. There he establishes a successful livery service driving workers to their hi-tech jobs.
The White Tiger won the 2008 Man Booker. Its thirty-three year old author, Aravind Adiga, was the second-youngest winner ever to receive the award (Soumya Bhattacharya and Vijay Dutt, October 15, 2008, http://www.hindustantimes.com/StoryPage/Print.aspx?Id=d861128c-4f44-464d-b1a2-6fde1684725c). Many critics undoubtedly shared the politically correct perspective of Richard Marcus who writes, "Adiga not only peels back the gloss of the economic miracle to expose the rot beneath, he instructs us in the means by which a small minority of the population are able to subjugate the majority" (http://blogcritics.org/archives/2008/05/02/120029.php). No doubt, the Man Booker was awarded to The White Tiger because of its depiction of the social injustices that ensue as India fervently embraces global capitalism. For as Kapur has noted, "every scene, every phrase, is a blunt instrument, wielded to remind Adiga's readers of his country's cruelty" (Akash Kapur, "The Secret of His Success," The New York Times Book Review," November 9, 2008, 13). Indeed, Michael Portillo, chairman of the Man Booker committee, suggested The White Tiger won because "the judges felt it shocked and entertained in equal measure" (Bhattacharya/Dutt).
Nevertheless, as a parable of the travesties associated with India's "economic miracle," Kapur is correct in suggesting that realism and social complexity are sacrificed for depictions calculated to evoke moral outrage from the reader. The result is that in scene after scene this "surfeit of emblematic detail" necessarily reduces "the characters to symbols," thereby presenting "an incomplete portrait of a nation and a people grappling with the ambiguities of modernity" ("The Secret of His Success").
What redeems The White Tiger is that it conveys the seismic transformations occurring in the economy that are rupturing the rigid confines of caste and the once immutable familial and social obligations inherent in a feudal civilization. Balram succeeds in severing those ties. He is aspirational. He yearns to be an entrepreneur. He resists his mother's pressure to marry and assume the lifetime of obligations that will ensue. By the novel's conclusion, he has realized his goal of becoming a capitalist in the new market economy. True, he rescues a nephew. But this act of altruism confers tangible economic benefits since the nephew will become Balram's trusted lieutenant.
The White Tiger is politically incorrect. It is satire. The protagonist, like India herself, is deeply flawed. This novel is not about victimization, although there are grave injustices. It is not about a failed Third-World country, although India is struggling. It is about how India's new economy is dissolving feudalism and caste. It reveals the terrible price of that freedom. By encapsulating the story in a series of unanswered letters written by "The White Tiger, A Thinking Man, And an Entreprenuer" to the Premier of China, Adiga injects humor, revealing Balram's woefully misguided perceptions while, nonetheless, informing readers about the inter-Indian/Chinese rivalry.
Aravind Adiga holds a dual citizenship from Australia and India. He graduated in English from Columbia University and Magdalen College, Oxford. He has interned at the Financial Times and served as a South Asia correspondent for Time. He now lives in Mumbai. Adiga defended his decision to write about a character from the underclass (not his milieu) in an audio interview with Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian.
If authors followed a caste system of their own and each just wrote about his kind you would end up with something like what you have now. You'd just end up with novels that represent about five percent of Indians.… I think the whole point of being in literature, of being in imaginative fiction, is to try and get under the skin of someone else and to speak in the voice of someone else…That's the reason I became a writer. I never wanted to write about someone like myself…(http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/oct/16/booker-prize)
Aravind Adiga has provided us with a novel that examines India's destiny. It's funny; it is irreverent; it dares to gaze outward upon the world. Read The White Tiger in conjunction with Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India (Anchor Books, 2007). Then you will begin to understand the wonder of India and the tremendous challenges she faces.
Yet as promising as both Indecision and The White Tiger are by comparison with Everything Is Illuminated, these two novels fall short of full-blooded realism. The comedy evident in Indecision and The White Tiger threatens to dissolve into a laugh track designed to entice a readership away from the multimedia domain of the Internet. Certainly, no one would consider these easily digested parables comparable to Tolstoy's War and Peace (1969), Stendhal's The Red and the Black (1930), and Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925).
Thus, for nearly a century now—with the most notable exception of Solzhenitsyn—literary fiction has willfully turned its back on realism. In doing so it has become increasingly irrelevant, no longer able to present the stories of our times. Without Solzhenitsyn's imperative to bear witness and Milosz's exhortation "to distinguish between the real and the unreal," fiction has lost its vitality. Readers now seek other entertainment. What once drew them to novels was the desire to understand our world and the truths and illusions encoded therein. Literary subjectivity, recast as postmodernism, has joined forces with "social justice" to emasculate and annihilate meaningful fiction. Return to realism, dare to tell the terrible truths of our age, and readers will return.
The Cusp of Dreams
Today, Americans blame the greed of Wall Street for the collapse of our economy. But no one challenges the publishing industry or academe for having forsaken great literature in favor of the sanctimonious fraud we refer to today as literary fiction. In acceding to market forces, oddly enough, it is the stories by women writers engaged in writing about the world that become the first casualties. Publishers tell themselves that there is no audience for these "Amazon" stories. Little wonder, then, that in the annals of great literature, readers strain to find female authors who write beyond the bounds of gender and social class, despite the fact that, for more than a generation, women have been working in "a man's world."
For these reasons and to further the cause of great literature, Literary Gulag will publish twelve monthly installments of The Cusp of Dreams (Copyright © 2000 Diana E. Sheets) beginning in June. The Cusp of Dreams is an American story that dares to bear witness. It is a realistic novel that, reflecting its subject matter, presents the tragic and occasionally comic stories of ordinary men and women desperate to keep their jobs.
The Cusp of Dreams is the dark saga of modern business and the lives of people who struggle in its pursuit. It is not, however, a tale of executives making billion-dollar deals from their corner offices and agonizing over the color of their next Mercedes. Rather, it is the story of the men and women in the trenches who do what they can to close thousand-dollar contracts from their cars or cheap motel rooms and who wonder how they are going to pay next-month's rent. Of course, they use the same tactics as the big dogs. They lie, cheat, steal, and, when necessary, attack their co-workers. However, their schemes don't work and their jobs and personal relationships disintegrate in the process. This novel has no heroes. For the men and women living on the cusp, the outcomes are bad or, at best, ambiguous. Perhaps nobody cares, but they should because as the road-warriors' lives collapse our whole society crumbles.