Thursday, March 19, 2009

Trouble with Trouble with Fiction

My last post seems to have harshed the mellow of a few folks eager to rise to fiction's defense (which I can't take seriously, as it continues in spite of everything to be the dominant literary mode) and others who feel they've caught me being reductive and simplistic (guilty as charged). Of course there's more to fiction than winding up the monkeys, though I'm intrigued by one commenter's remark that my parodic accounting of how fiction works is actually a damn interesting way to produce poems. If the piece came off as snobbery, it can only be so in a bizarre, reverse-psychology kind of way, because in spite of identifying as a poet and finding the world of poetry more engaging and more free-spirited than the market-driven world of American MFA-style fiction, I am in fact something of a frustrated novelist, who never got over having his world rocked by the titanic prose slabs of Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Pynchon, Melville, Sterne, etc., etc. Somewhere in the final section of 2666, Archimboldi succinctly claims that fiction can do everything poetry can, plus a lot more, and I kind of agree with that. At its best, the novel isn't an empty vessel for the kabuki of a writer's career, but a monster (taut or baggy) stitched together out of wildly diverse components, over months and years of obsession and possession.

I resist fiction as I encounter it in the New York Times Book Review and even the New York Review of Books, on the tables of Barnes & Noble and even BookCellar (a very fine independent store in Lincoln Square) and Myopic Books (Wicker Park). It's digestible, it's currency. The bar seems set too low: take, for example, an acclaimed recent novel, Junot Diaz's The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It's funny and tragic and the writing is inspired at times, and I can see why it got all sorts of attention and won prizes, and yet I judge it a failure, in large part because the title character is a gutless wonder completely unworthy of the attention the novel lavishes upon him—a failure all the more disappointing to this comic-book geek given its attempt to tell the story of a comic-book geek's encounter with the sad, savage history of the Dominican Republic, within the framework of a last-chance-to-get-laid picaresque adventure. Sounds pretty good, but the elements don't gel; instead we get a set of brilliant set-pieces that founder in their attempt to depict the struggle between reality and imagination that Latin American political upheaval in the context of an indvidual's own struggle between his (pathetic, inadequate, fat and loveless) reality and his (four-color, heroic, good triumphing over evil) imagination. But Oscar Wao himself is too flimsy, inept, and undermotivated, barely even adequate as a holy fool, since he himself does none of the investigating of the past that makes for its most gripping segments. He's a small man and the book around him is small too as a consequence. A worthy experiment at least, and oddly or not so oddly similar to Bolaño's overall project of depicting the flight into literature perpetrated by all of his characters as a journey into damnation, a flight from evil that ends, invariably, in evil's very heart.

It's not, ultimately, that I want to privilege language—that that for me is where all the action is, and therefore fiction will usually disappoint me because the libidinal energies of a novel or short story will be sucked up by plot and character, leaving little or no energy or interest left over for the life of words. I'm not necessarily interested in the "poet's novel," of the sort I think Brian Phillips talks about or will talk about in an upcoming issue of Poetry: that is, a novel in which the poetic function of language (to be Jakobsonian) takes precedence over plot and character. It's rather that I'm interested in a "democratized" novel, one in which the beauty and accuracy of the sentences is at least as important as the characters, incidents, and ideas that those sentences build—neither a poetic garnish for the meat of the story, nor itself the main course.

Part of the reason I'm drawn to this is because of my own experience as a writer, which has taught me that the things I write without preconception are going to be stronger and stranger than those I try to control. I want to cultivate maximum extraversion, in Jung's sense—other-directedness—like Jack Spicer, I need a good radio to tune in the Martians with. For me that happens best word by word, phrase by phrase, whereas with plots and characters one starts thinking about probabilities until every sentence feels overdetermined and I'm overcome by acedia and disgust. But of course not every writer is extraverted in that way; there must be many fiction writers whose muses, whose internalized Others, manifest through the constructs of plot and character (consider all the stories writers tell about characters who behave in ways than their creators never intended). But that's what I'm ultimately looking for from a book: not something chiseled and finite and controlled, but a loose baggy monster, a scene of struggle, something that contains more of an author and her universe than her intentions could ever have fathomed when she set out, and quite likely not afterward, either.

It just takes longer, usually, to figure out whether or not a work of fiction is extraverted in this fashion. A poem can give me an immediate hit of the alienated majesty I go to writing for. But when a novel, such as 2666, does accomplish this, and lures me all the way through to its impossible ending, it has the potential to undo and remake me in a way that individual poems can't hope to do.

Do I contradict myself...?

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