Friday, May 02, 2008

Friday Rant

Well I’m ratty. It was a bad running day.

Actually, it is perfect running day: sunny, fresh and clear, so I thought I would make it all the way up the hill behind the house, to the point at which, somewhere below, “ruhig fließt der Rhein” in a way that always strikes me as a flimsy imitation of the Mekong delta. I had hoped that this blissful experience would prepare me for another long day at the desk.

If only each and every suburban dog owner had not had the same idea.

Now, my favourite (please note the pungent sarcasm here) type of dog owner is the one who drives his beast to a nice spot with a view where the animal can have a good crap on the greenery, while he or she sits smoking and/or texting behind the wheel (sometimes with the engine running). This way, he or she usually doesn’t notice in time when their slobbering Cerberus has spotted the unassuming runner and gone for the prey.

This is not to say that I hate dogs on principle. I just hate dogs that quite obviously serve as penile extensions for their moronic owners. And that goes for female owners, too!

Dear God – would you please make it so that dogs know that swiftly moving creatures on two legs, sheathed in Gore-Tex (trademark) and Lycra (trademark), are not rabbits? That would be awesome, thank you.

As I said, I was getting ratty by having my run cut short by the presence of black, sniffing things in seek-and-destroy mode, and began to think myself into a frustrated rage … about the course prep for next week and the various exam theses I have to read and comment upon and the fact that the bathroom needs cleaning – and the absolute imbalance between the work that needs to be done and the hours available to do it.

For instance, I really ought to be making headway with a novel an MA-student of mine is working on: Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar (1995). The problem: The book bores me stiff. You know, I’m not that young any more and really have to be a tad more discerning about my reading matter (this is also the reason, in case you have been wondering, why I have weaned myself off my daily dose of the Daily Mail).

Not every book needs to be read, especially when it contains passages like this one:

The superstore was quiet with most lights out to save electric. That fly devil Creeping Jesus would be in his office with the one-way glass. I knew he would be looking at me through the mirrors.
I stacked the Delicious in shiny piles. I put all the soft fruit and perishable veg in customer service trolley then shoved them twoat a time down the tunnel into the fridges. I covered the tatties with sacks to slow down shooting and I swept the section. I washed the shelves, tipping the buckets down the drain in the meat-cutting room. You could see the pale yellowy maggots still there under the grate.
I used to work in the meat. You cleaned up each night. Afterwards you smelled of blood and it was under your nails as you lifted the glass near your nose in the pub. You pulled the bleeding plastic bag of gubbins, cut open by bones, to the service lift. Blood spoiled three pairs of shoes. You were expected to supply your own footwear (11-12).

Of course, stacking shelves in the supermarket is not all there is to the protagonist’s life, and by the time we read the above we know that drama - in the form of a boyfriend who has slashed his throat – has entered her life. In the novel's opening sequence we see her standing in a pool of her boyfriend’s blood, frantically fiddling with her fags and the kettle – yes, life’s a bitch.

Now, we all know that, among other things, literature is about rendering the ordinary extraordinary. But does the ordinary really have to be that banal? Do we really need the cheesy little trick of self-immolation to breathe a little significance into this protagonist’s insignificant life? Upton Sinclair did a better job with The Jungle, sentimental though this novel may be (but then I’m a sucker for realism and unashamedly admit – see my profile—that I love “The Bourgeois Novel”).

And what the heck do we do with these sly little theory pointers at “The Lacanian Mirror Stage” (“I knew he would be looking at me through the mirrors”) and “Julia Kristeva’s Concept of Abjection” (“You could see the pale yellowy maggots still there under the grate”), inserted, no doubt, to lend this book of depressing banality some kind of deeper meaning? Of course, one could write an essay along those lines about this novel – but surely that is not what novels are all about in the first place.

Maybe the current fad for shallow Spartanism laced with superficial theoretical insight will sort itself out in the long run, what with people all over the globe starting blogs about their banal existence (note the pungent sarcasm directed at myself). One lives in hopes.

The other kind of book that I find infuriating at the moment is the exact opposite to the narrow-minded little tales exemplified by the aforementioned novel: 835-page tomes written by prodigal 24-year olds whose parents work in advertising/publishing/"the media." They are usually set in Paris, (increasingly) Dresden during the bombing of the city, an unidentified Bulgarian concentration camp and a lovely brownstone just on the right end of Harlem on the morning of 11 September 2001. They typically feature frustrated suburban transsexuals, unusually intelligent gay pets and African-American grandparents who’ve spent their lives passing for white, thereby developing a major depression that manifests itself in aphasia/dermatitis/irritable bowel syndrome. At the end, all these different plot strands miraculously come together in an epiphanic conclusion, to which the reader is meant to go “Aaahh!”

What these books are trying to say is: Dude, isn’t life complex? It's so complex I've composed nearly one thousand pages about it. But really, because their youthful authors don’t have a clue about the complexity of life (having spent theirs in a lovely brownstone just on the right end of Harlem and/or an Ivy-League campus) they typically amount to little more than novelistic versions on the undergraduate essay topic “What I’ve learnt in Literary Theory 101.”

It seems that some readers get a kick out of all this, gobbling down one door stopper after the other and going “Aaahh!”

Aaahh! – isn’t this … no, aren’t I clever because I could trace this passage on page 456 back to one in A Thousand Plateaus that sounds almost exactly like it? I'm told that these are deep books about the fragility of life, the inevitability of death and the sheer complexity of being. Our existence is so fragmented – we don’t know who we are …. I'm covered in zits and Clearasil (trademark) won’t do the trick any more …. Wasn’t 9/11 terrible? Wasn’t it our personal Holocaust? And aren’t we the most traumatised generation ever?

Oh, go away you spoilt, blackberried and amexed egotists. You are nowhere near being traumatised.

So there. Got it off me chest. Now I don’t feel so ratty anymore. To work!


Mr. Joyboy said...

Nice post, with a dramatic shift in the middle!

I agree with you about younger English-language writers: so many of these books seem to be either banal or twee. People are catching on -- the reviews of Jonathan Safran Foer's 9/11 novel seemed a bit exasperated. Walter Benn Michaels has also been manning the lonely outpost of "I'm not a conservative, but when did we suddenly decide that all young writers have to populate their books with transsexual butterfly-collecting Buddhists?" I thought his book "The Trouble with Diversity" was only intermittently very good, but I couldn't help share his wonderment at Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America," a counterfactual fantasy which assumes a Lindbergh Presidency in which Jews are discriminated against in public accommodations. Michaels says: "Umm, wait a second. Instead of inventing a parallel universe in which (sympathetic, lovable) Jews were discriminated against, why not write about the real universe in which blacks were?"

So my question to you, the wife, is name me some works of art that don't fall into either category -- Neither twee nor banal. My answer is social realism. Books or movies that portray ordinary, flawed characters recognizable from everyday life, but construct moving and plausible plots that involve the viewer. The U.S. hasn't been able to do this since the 1970s, it seems, but England and the Continent keep the flame alive. Some candidates, thrown out at random: all of the miraculous movies by the Dardenne brothers from Belgium, "Thieves Like Us," "Mean Streets," most early Mike Leigh, a lot of Ken Loach. Novels? Crikey, hard to name any. Raymond Carver comes to mind, of course.

But books are your department, so enlighten us!

The Wife said...

Touché, Mr. Joyboy. :-) I know that I have a penchant for unwarranted associationism - which used to be a problem in school, where the didactic stipulation to "only write about one story" tended to clash with my somewhat erratic imagination.

But this is not school, so I may do as I please. In fact I might patent my style under the label "saltatory blogging" - who knows, maybe it will catch on.

As to the issue of social realism et al.: Pity that you weren't at the conference that preceded our meeting in Düsseldorf in April. During this event I not only listened to numerous papers applauding precisely the kind of novels that I was taking apart in my post, but I also was attacked - in a far from subtle way - by some of the youthful participants for what they construed as my hopeless conservatism. In effect, Friday's post had been festering in my mind for almost a month, which might explain the vehemence of my tone.

Social realism - yes, absolutely - if we define in the way you do (though I'm not so sure whether it inevitably has to be political in a Mike Leigh kind of sense). It's about time that we rescued the concept of realism from the abuse that it receives from self-appointed radicals primed by the modernist/post-modernist ideology of experimentalism, novelty and subversion (which they don't satisfy either. Let's face it: Foer's little "experiments" with typefont and images are as old as Tristram Shandy and only half as funny - and in the end seem to end in an Ophraesque bid for "closure").

Sadly, "realism" is often dismissively associated with "naive mimeticism" - which is in itself a terribly naive thing to do. All literature is representation; it not only reflects the world outside, but it creates worlds of its own, shaped by specific, analysable stylistic, structural, ideological etc. principles. These principles constitute another level of realism: the cognitive reality that allows literature to function - the presentation of minds at work. Cognitive narratologists have done great research in that direction, drawing attention to the fact how even presumably "traditional" novels reveal a complex array of narrative interactions that disturb their realistic surface.

But I think I might have to elaborate on that in a special post - as soon as I find the time. As to the question of who currently fits this bill, I'm thinking of British authors like J.G. Ballard, Jim Crace, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Frayn and Ian McEwan. But here's the rub: they're all oldish whiteish(Ishiguro) middle-class guys - not exotic enough in our days of excess.

More to follow. For the moment: thank you so much for this inspiring and challenging comment of yours!