Living overseas for many years, I learned to ask open-ended questions about culture. Thus I came to know, for example, a little of what the late-20th-century German army — beefed up by a draft and a rich country’s high taxes, but unable to do much of anything militarily — was like inside. An acquaintance of mine had served on the champion river-crossing-with-full-battle-gear team. (He did not seem worried that, in the event of a Russian invasion, he and his veteran comrades would not know how to resist except by finding a river and crossing and recrossing it; I didn’t have the heart to suggest this to him.)
I hope it’s the same for information-age fiction; in fact, my questions have to be open-ended, as I’m deeply bewildered. I can’t even call these books postmodern, as they seem rather to be post-everything: post-family, post-individual, post-religion, post-industrial-capitalism, post-national, post-feminist, post-ethnic. They don’t venture a clear reordering or critique, as modernism does; nor do they offer earnest or even ironic substitutions for our consideration, as postmodern visual art did when Jeff Koons depicted Michael Jackson in porcelain with the stated intention of “creating” him “in a very god-like icon manner.”
The book industry, after all, doesn’t allow its suppliers the same latitude in borrowing or in rebellion. The business — seeded in drawing rooms and gentlemen’s studies, fertilized by lending libraries, and now flowering through women’s book clubs and Kindles — tends to be bourgeois in its demands. No matter how post- you are as an author, you probably still have to tell a cogent story. The fiction avant-garde (as much as it’s permitted to be one) tells this story mainly through imagery, with the (already) time-honored postmodern imitation of popular electronic media. This strategy has plain disadvantages for print fiction: Readers, used to being viewers, can revert to the screen for actual images, and to older literature for the ideas they seem to crave most.
With respect to images, the difference between the old and the new fiction is astonishing. In Jane Austen’s work, there’s practically nothing both detailed and explicit about the material culture (the “glossy spots” on Fanny Price’s ball gown appear only through another character’s comment, and the authorial interest remains in that character’s manners and morals), let alone the attractions of a costume drama, and no modern crazed Austen fans care.
As for me, I find many of the new fiction’s scenes ingenious, and funny, and even moving in competition with those in traditional fiction, but I wouldn’t read these new books again, or praise them synthetically, no matter what Oprah might command; any more than I would eat all the junk food I’m told to. I don’t think the comparison is unfair. The titillation of literary imagery is like “mouth-feel,” in being designed to make me consume too much but without giving solid nurturance. These are long, dense, busy books, but I don’t see how to get out of them what I need.
I feel that I have to include in this judgment even a really memorable book like Zadie Smith’s fifth novel, Swing Time, about an unnamed dual-ethnic British girl under the overwhelming influence of two dancers. One is her friend (also dual-ethnic) from childhood, who (because her more-real world is the screen on which she’s sure she belongs) is pulled between sociopathy and pathos, between a brutal drive toward media apotheosis and a compulsive destruction of the self that exists in time and space. The other dancer is the protagonist’s boss, an aging white megastar who eventually parlays her midriff-in-motion into a plantation from which she can order up an unwilling young African boyfriend from his village and an African baby from two viable parents.
Traditional plot elements are thus set up, but without any edification I can sense amid the vast array of physical description. The protagonist’s help in the boyfriend’s escape and her exposure of the child purchase are conducted in the impulsive, stumbling terms of a Facebook “friendship” gone bad. In the aftermath, she is humiliated and desolate; her employer has barely been disturbed. No wonder, as the young woman’s consuming relationship with the star has been, for years, carried out mostly by smartphone contact with the star’s other satellites. She has no sustaining attachments to which she can retreat, in essence no name, even to herself. But she doesn’t fall like a tragic heroine; she drifts off, and not even to where lessons seem liable to exist.
In reading Smith’s essays collected under the title “Changing My Mind” (2009), I could at least ask how I’m meant to take all this. I was particularly struck by her admiration of David Foster Wallace: Through fiction of greatly heightened frankness and precision, he sought to address ethically the electronic mediation of reality to the modern mind. It’s a superficially appealing purpose, especially to those of us who grew up around any contempt for the “squawk box.”
But not far below the surface is a Rousseau-like plea for a time when reality was unmediated. That of course wasn’t true even in the hunter-gatherer stage, when we mediated reality through tools, visual art, and storytelling. And I’m looking down right now at my corgi, Bessie, whose mediation between herself and reality includes the fiction that, without her vigilance, predators will devour my husband and me. For mortal creatures, isn’t everything mediated? But don’t rational creatures have a lot of choice in how it’s mediated?
Wallace and Smith and similar fiction writers attempt in a single basic way, through masses of pure documentation, actually to un-mediate reality (creepy as any such God-challenging move may appear). Images are key: This is the exact tactile sensation, the color, the shape; this is the basic, real experience left when institutions and ideologies are muddled or gone. But Smith’s leading example of Wallace’s achievement along these lines, an early piece about a boy’s first high dive, shows the trap. The diver himself, by fixating on his physical experience, avoids social and intellectual connection and deepens his panic and despair. The middle-aged woman in line to dive in front of him isn’t a spunky human being, having fun without reference to her looks: She’s only her big, tight bathing suit and cheese-like, veiny thighs. The voices — concerned, impatient — other swimmers direct at him are not signs of other consciousnesses but merely an interruption of his own. The slightly rough surface of the board isn’t an ordinary, barely noticeable safety feature but a tormenting, disgusting skin grater. His world — physical only — is the free-fall of solipsism. He has de-storied and thus stranded himself like a child concentrating on the scary sounds in the darkness instead of saying, “I’m scared. May I have a nightlight? My friend has one.”
It’s not unlike the world of Smith’s protagonist in Swing Time. The depiction of her mother, an old-fashioned radical (who, of course, ends up as part of the establishment), filled me with ironic nostalgia. She marches forth to garden on her housing estate, uncovering only clay — so, ceramics classes for the local kids, her daughter included? Nothing doing. They can’t get beyond the penis shape rising from the pottery wheel during the initial demonstration. Am I the only aghast fud here, or are “children” who can resist clay not some appalling deconstruction of children? The narrator doesn’t notice that a lifelong sensation of hip emptiness is the really odd one.
Fiction is malleable for a reason. You need to get your hands dirty in it, form it into something new and useful to be shared. There is plenty of journalism to tell us what the world is like, alas. There are plenty of blogs to tell us exactly what it’s like to individuals in isolation. Fiction should strive to understand how the world works underneath, in its elements, and communicate something about that.
– Sarah Ruden is the author of the forthcoming book The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible and the translator of a forthcoming edition of Augustine’s Confessions.