Complete detachment or complete engagement – as Billy Joel observed, it all depends upon your appetite….
I am still making my way, rather too leisurely probably, through Walker Percy’s marvelous novel The Last Gentleman (about which I will have much to say, since I corresponded with Mr. Percy while completing my first book, a novel, The New Southern Gentleman). I’m also awaiting delivery of my copy of about which I’ll write some more once I’ve read it and digested its what promises to be awesomely hyped mediocrity.
That left me casting about for something to write about for this essay, and I found it by stumbling upon an essay in The Nation about the latest trend (counter trend might be another way of viewing it) in literary fiction: novels composed of the musings of completely detached narrators rambling on in some sort of Onionesque version of the literary equivalent of a “nattering nabob of negativitsm” that the vice-crook of the Nixon administration once was on about.
I think this trend says something (interesting? troubling? useful? useless?) about American culture – particularly the culture of creative writing programs and the sorts of literature they produce. It is also important to note why the trend in European literature has been for an almost diametrically opposed trend in litfic from across the Atlantic. Finally, and this is mighty important to remember, as Bullwinkle would say, none of this may be anything but footnotes in the great narrative where The Dude abides and one should know the first rule of Fight Club.
The poster figure for this new trend in litfic is a guy named Ben Lerner whose first novel (cover shown above), Leaving the Atocha Station, and its follow up, 10:04, are summed up by Jon Baskin the The Nation article linked above as follows:
. Lerner’s two novels offer little in the way of plot or secondary characters, and their subject matter can seem incidental, even arbitrary. The first is about an American poet in Spain, self-conscious and skeptical of those around him, who wastes time and flirts with girls to avoid the “project” (a long poem) he had been sent abroad to complete. Relatively speaking, the narrator of 10:04, a poet in Brooklyn working on his second novel, is less narcissistic than the narrator of Atocha; generally speaking, he remains remarkably self-obsessed and disengaged, intrigued by other people in the way a biologist might be by plant forms. That both books are told from such a limited and partial perspective cannot necessarily be counted against them; since modernism, we have known that a literary masterpiece can be made up entirely of a character’s conversations with herself. At the same time, given the budding consensus that Lerner’s novels indicate something about our current literary climate, it might be worth pondering what that perspective portends. (emphasis mine)
Well, maybe. As Baskin’s piece goes on to say, Lerner is the leading practitioner of the “novel of detachment,” an endearing term, that, whose chief characteristic seems to be that its narrator doesn’t give a shit about anything. Thus freed from the fetters of this so called life, the narrator is then free to look at everything with with “impersonal distance.”
If you’re thinking “literature as biology textbook” (sans, perhaps the comfort of intelligent design theory), you’d be pretty close to right. Why would anyone care about this sort of literary effort posing as (social) scientific inquiry? As the Unknown Comic once asked, what do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino? Elefino.
I mentioned above that there might be some explanations for the rise of this literary movement. Baskin points at one – the influence of Post Modern writers such as John Barth and Donald Barthelme (about whom I have written) as well as the work of W. G. Sebald. Leave it to The Nation to take the high road.
Me? Not so much.
A quick check on the writers Baskin (who may/may not be reliable as a critic as he seems to have his own agendae) mentions as contemporaries hoeing the same literary row as Ben Lerner tells me that the following connections exist: 1) all live in NYC (mostly in Brooklyn, hipster heaven); 2) all studied or taught at Columbia University (in some cases both). So what we have here is a perfect example of what my pal David Comfort calls “the MFA Mafia” taking care of its own. The novel of detachment is what literary fiction always is in America, it seems: a shtick from a particular creative writing program that’s caught on. Whether it’s a real thing or merely more hipsterism like badly fitting clothes, bushy beards, and disdain for any world view but its own remains to be seen.
Detachment’s opposite number, the hyperrealism I’ve written about as championed by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, seems positively uplifting compared to the clinical coldness of the detachment crowd. At least Knausgaard seems engaged. He cares – maybe way too much – about the picayune matters that make up life. He’s not afflicted with some terminal case of disinterest in anything/anyone that he encounters. He takes time to comment on everything and everyone. He doesn’t like a lot of what he encounters, but he thinks it deserves his attention. That’s basically a positive view of life when one thinks about it. Negation, which is what detachment is, despite its apologists, never is, really.
I’ve read Knausgaard. I’ll read Lerner. But I must admit I’m already biased against the latter. If, as Baskin notes, the basic theme of the novel of detachment is noting that nothing matters, I already believe he’s got it dead wrong. Denying the life force (Hello, D. H. Lawrence!) is a fool’s act. If forced to choose between these two weltenschauungs,I have to agree with Knausgaard:
Everything – every little, seemingly meaningless, mundane thing – matters way too much.