Thursday, November 30, 2006

The other thing that bothers me about much of the contemporary American fiction I've read is the condescension shown to the characters. When Russo writes about the hapless ex-wife of his sympathetic if nebbishy hero in Empire Falls we are invited to feel superior to her, to shake our heads at her inability to recognize her folly in throwing over a good man for the sake of a blithering, dishonest chump. Perhaps that's just a function of comedy: "Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type—not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain." But even if you hold with Aristotle here, there is genuine pain in the portrait of this character—most especially in her alienation from her sensitive daughter—and pain in the book which (spoiler alert) ends with a school shooting. Empire Falls is a tragicomedy, and in an almost classical way Russo emphasizes fate, as symbolized by the Knox River whose course was changed by a local millionaire only to end up sweeping away that millionaire's widow in a flood decades later. But I find myself impatient with the schematics of this. The book is more memorable for its evocation of a small world, which is as I've said Russo's specialty. It's why I actually think the bagatelle Straight Man is his most successful if least ambitious novel, because it's almost purely comic.

I dislike Russo's fiddling with tragedy because it seems to depend on a constriction of what's possible. You might call his portrayal of poor people stuck in their ruts a form of versimilitude, but it seems willful to me, like the predicaments of some of Hardy's characters (I sometimes feel that the Wessex novels are nineteenth-century versions of the Kobayashi Maru test from Star Trek): the character's every chance of escape from his or her situation is cut off so that we can see them squirm. I suppose my complaint isn't much different from D.H. Lawrence's in his marvelous and idiosyncratic "Study of Thomas Hardy." And Lawrence in fact points the way toward the mode of fiction I have the most respect for. His most exciting novels are polyphonic in the Bakhtinian sense: Women in Love presents us with vividly strange characters with passionately opposed belief systems, and the novel gives us a struggle between and among those characters that seems in no way predetermined by the novelist's own convictions. The world Lawrence builds is open-ended: he does not pretend to master the fates of each character or to understand their folly as just folly. His characters strive to be as intelligent and critical and perceptive as Lawrence himself does. It's a strange sort of fiction—we aren't likely to recognize Women in Love as "realistic" in the ordinary sense of that word. But it's intensely realistic and gripping in its portrayal of the struggle to found a basis for one's own identity, and for one's relations to others, when the given social roles available to us (sometimes for reasons of class, sometimes of gender) fall short. In Aristotlean terms, Lawrence's characters are not of a "lower type" than us, nor are they the higher types to be found in Greek tragedy: they are like us, but profoundly dissatisfied with that condition. There's a rigorous morality to that, or rather the potential for transcendental morality (in the Kantian sense of discovering the necessary preconditions for morality) that attracts me.

Should I ever attempt to write another novel (a first attempt at high school tragicomedy, written in my early twenties, is hiding in a box under the spare bed), I would want it to make full use of novelistic resources: otherwise I might as well just call it prose. And it seems to me that the greatest of those resources—tantamount to world-building—is the ability to accurately describe and manifest the struggle of individuals who are permitted the same resources, and the same fundamental unknowing, as the author possesses.

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