Friday, March 6, 2015

February Reads

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid
The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White
Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A quote from The Twyborn Affair to demonstrate White's absolute command of language:
Maisie had been let live in the attic of a house belonging to a rich benevolent queer, who was in the habit of siphoning off some of her rougher trade. On her patron's death, the house became the subject of endless legal wrangles, with Maisie a forgotten part of it. On the ground floor, in what had been the dining room, there was a claw-footed bath lying on its side, for no reason Eadith had ever heard explained. All the lower part of the house was unfurnished, the stairs uncarpeted and dry-rotten, rickety banisters with whole sections of the uprights missing. Only on the attic floor did life return, in a flowering of crochet and knick-knacks, the lank bodies of empty dresses hanging half-hidden by a faded cretonne curtain, face powder merging with spilt flour, tea becoming grit on an unswept floor.
I liked White's novel, the triptych structure, the play with gender, the rather casual dismissal of the possibility of trans phobia. It's not a novel rooted in absolute realism, but rather an idealized realm with little consequences. Despite this lack of realism, White accomplishes better indictments of the Australian middle class than Tsiolkas could ever hope to come close. Of course, the targets of Tsiolkas's and White's ire are different and temporally disparate. Yet, both make these grand sweeping statements about the hypocrisy of Australia's bourgeoisie, so they bare comparison.

Tsiolkas's novel is one I liked and hated simultaneously. I found the novel's determined stern grasp of realism to be rather boring, indicative of a wider trend of boring realism, an orthodoxy that threatens to bore the shit out of me. It doesn't help either White or Tsiolkas that I read Gravity's Rainbow in the same month, a clear masterpiece that stretches the form. Perhaps I chose my second novel by White to read poorly; maybe I should have read Voss, his alleged modernist masterpiece. I suppose my impatience with realism comes from the irritation that writers working in the realist tradition refuse to acknowledge that realism, like any literary method, is an artifice. They purport to present the world "as it is." Ugh. Over at the London Review of Books, Tom McCarthy astutely refers to this trend as
the naive and uncritical realism dominating contemporary middlebrow fiction, and the doctrine of authenticity peddled by creative writing classes the world over.
I'm not going to repeat myself, as I think I've laid out my thoughts as they currently stand already. I will however add an additional possible reason for my recently developed allergic reaction. I work in a bookstore and in today's economy, bookstores live by the sale of shit, pure shit. Pablum such as The Rosie Project, All the Light We Cannot See (a novel infuriatingly calculated for upper middle class white people in their 50s), Still Alice and others sell well enough that we can stay afloat, selling the odd gem to the odd customer. I've maintained in the past that cultural trash has its place, genre fiction is nothing to dismiss, and that the phrase "guilty pleasure" is specious and unproductive to cultural engagement. The issue that I have is when our cultural consumption consists solely of trash. One wouldn't eat McDonald's every day, so why would one read trash day in day out? Part of what makes these novels trash isn't their cheap prose but their commitment to a servile niceness, a bland unctuous deception that trades formal exploration for infantile emotions. These novels pander to a surface emotional life. They mobilize the tired elements of Literature the Market: language, artifice, and grammar, in order to facilitate a tiny spectrum of affect. These are novels for people who don't really need or want to feel anything deeper than short bursts of pleasure, quickly forgotten and replaced by other short bursts.

Literature, or rather, art in general, should make the consumer feel something and hopefully recognize something of their own affective life reflected by the work. This isn't to say that art should be relatable; this is to say that literature should deepen and expand one's emotional palette. Most of what we sell in this bookstore is pandering shit. It frustrates me not that they are reading this pablum, this wide swath of literature that coddles the inner emotional life, but that they could do so much better. People are incredibly smart, vastly more intelligent than the Internet would have you believe. The market of literature is harshly underestimating the emotional depth and intelligence of the average reader. Mainstream culture is infantilizing people. We should demand better of our art.

Of course, I sound like a sanctimonious pretentious asshole when I say all this, but at this point in my life as a critic, I mean well. I don't want to browbeat, and certainly, I've learned to rein in my judgement, or at least learned to transfer my judgement from the individual (pubescent arrogance of taste) to the wider patterns of consumption that demand this trend of realism to happen. Who am I to judge the individual who works hard every single day, who comes home tired and exhausted, and who wants to unwind with something easy and comforting? People are already dehumanized and ground down by the machinery of labour that I don't need to add to it. I'm not even better than the vast majority; I thoroughly enjoy my cultural trash (I am a Doctor Who fan, after all, the trashiest of trash). Yet, I want better for myself. I want to expand my tastes, improve my cultural vocabulary, and deepen my emotional lexicon by engaging with art. Yes, I'm echoing a classic Victorian adage of art by asserting than a dialogue with art is necessarily self-improving, something many other cultural critics have resolutely rejected. However, I'm less interested in the intellectual stimulation of art than I am in the emotional stimulation. A frequent and lively engagement with art can only increase empathy. I'm inspired by Steven Pinker's hypothesis that the epistolary novel increased empathy by introducing people to emotional lives outside of their tiny worldview. How can this ever be a bad thing? For me, art is always aspirational.

This means, of course, going outside of my own tiny worldview and attempting to engage with art that challenges my own assumptions, whether that challenge be formal or emotional. How challenging can The Rosie Project be? How can it increase any empathy when it's pandering pablum designed to elicit the most juvenile of emotions? There's something to be said about how going outside of one's own worldview can lead to voyeurism, but perhaps that's a discussion left for another time.

In summary, realism bores me because it's infantilizing. I want art to shake my foundations and change my world. Realism is a boring artifice that in its current mode can only pander. Thus, this month is full of books that are simultaneously enjoyable and boring. Next month, I hope to read something more challenging, emotionally speaking.

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