Category: Contemporary Fiction

Rachel Cusk, Kudos

Rachel Cusk’s most recent novel, Kudos (2019), is a great read.  It is also an odd book.  Basically, it is a series of conversations between the narrator (a novelist on her way to and then attending a literary conference in an unnamed southern European city) and people she encounters over three days.  And they aren’t really conversations; the narrator/novelist says almost nothing as she is subjected to monologues from the people—none of them intimates, some of them total strangers—she meets.  There is no plot, no character development, no dominating point of view.  The monologues are offered without authorial (or even narrator) comment.

But the stories and ideas each monologist offers are almost all enthralling; one only wishes that the people one sat next to on an airplane where one-fifth as interesting.

I guess this could be called a “novel of ideas” (Nick and I just recently read together Sianne Ngai’s recent piece in the Paris Review—an excerpt from her book on “gimmicks”—about the novel of ideas.)  But Cusk doesn’t seem to have any stake in any of the ideas expressed.  The narrator just records what is said to her.  About the only concrete take-away from the book is that family life generates tremendous hurt and resentment.  And that it is the rare couple indeed that can avoid divorce.

In any case, I wanted to capture two passages from the book that relate to my earlier post about the banishment of hope, of anything looking remotely like a happy ending, from novels that aspire to be considered “literature”  or “serious fiction.”

The first passage is one of the few places where the narrator speaks in her own voice:

“Suffering has always appeared to me as an opportunity, I said, and I wasn’t sure I would ever discover this was true and if so why it was, because so far I had failed to understand what it might be an opportunity for.  All I knew was that it carried a kind of honor, if you survived it, and left you in a relationship to the truth that seemed closer, but that in fact might have been identical to the truthfulness of staying in one place.” (Read book on Kindle, so can only say this passage occurs 27% of the way in.)

I like this because it suggests how we want to face the fact of suffering squarely, not denying its existence.  And how we also long to find a way to make suffering meaningful, even productive, but can’t find that way—and, in fact, suspect any way of garnering a “return” on suffering as full of bad faith, and morally suspect.  Suffering is evil and should be denounced as evil.  No fortunate falls.  And yet. . . we do keep trying to convert suffering into something else—if only the “honor” of survival.  “Survivor” has become a laudatory term in our day and age.

The second passage is much longer, but also addresses the grim world of serious fiction. I don’t feel any need to comment on the passage.

The speaker is a young literary critic.

“He had always been compelled by provocative and difficult writing, he went on, because this at least proved the author had the wit to unshackle himself from convention, but he found that in works of extreme negativity—the writings of Thomas Berhard were an example he had been considering lately—one nevertheless eventually hit an impasse.  A work of art could not, ultimately, be negative: its material existence, its status as an object, could not help but be positive, a gain, an addition to the sum of what was.  The self-destructive novel, like the self-destructive person, was something from which in the end you remained helplessly separated, forced to watch a spectacle—the soul turning on itself—in which you were powerless to intervene.  Great art was very often brought to the service of this self-immolation, as great intelligence and sensitivity often characterized those who found the world an impossible place to live in; yet the spectre of madness was so discomfiting that it made surrender to the writing unfeasible; one stayed on one’s guard, as a child might stay on its guard against a mad parent, knowing itself ultimately alone.  Negative literature, he had noticed, got much of its power through the fearless use of honesty:  a person with no interest in living and hence no investment in the future can afford to be honest, he said, and the same dubious privilege was extended to the negative writer.  Yet their honesty, as he had said, was of an unpalatable kind: in a sense it went to waste, perhaps because no one cared for the honesty of someone who was jumping the ship the rest of us were stuck in.  The real honesty, of course, was that of the person who remained on board and endeavored to tell the truth about it, or so we were led to believe.  If I agreed that literature was a form that took its life-blood from social and material constructs, the writer could do no more than stay within those constructs, buried in bourgeois life—and he had recently read it described somewhere—like a tick in an animal’s fur” (77-78% of the way through).

Sentimentality and Apocalypse

Despite the effort of feminist critics, Eve Sedgwick most notable among them, fear of sentimentality (one of the most persistent hallmarks of a modernist mindset) still rules the roost in almost all “serious” fiction.  I remember figuring out around age 14, when I first started reading classics like Hemingway, Joyce, and Hardy, that I could be sure that I was reading the “good stuff” if it all ends badly.  “Poetic justice” and “happy endings” belong to the Victorians and Hollywood.  They were banished in any fiction post 1890 that aspired to “high” status—and such seems to still be the case.  Bad things happening to good people is the rule.

One reason for abandoning sentimentality, one I find myself very much in tune with, is the determination to avoid any hint that suffering pays dividends.  The classic Christian plot, of course, reveals how redemption is won through suffering.  And classic fictional plots offer all kinds of variants on the ways that characters grow in wisdom or strength or sympathy through various trials, physical and/or mental.  Not to mention suffering that serves as atonement for various faults, thus washing them clean and making the character “worthy of” a happy ending.

The modernist sensibility is that suffering is meaningless.  It does not make people better—and it does not make the world better.  Suffering is just outrageous, all too common, and offering nothing but the cup of bitterness.  In fact, there is something obscene about all efforts to turn suffering to account, to make it serve some purpose.  One must resolutely turn one’s back on any sentimental way enlisted to make suffering pay dividends.

The sentimentalist, in other words, lies.  He makes the world out to be better than it really is because he takes suffering, which is inevitable, and makes it palatable.

Anti-sentimentalism, as many have pointed out, comes with a kind of machismo pride: I am man enough to face up to the harsh truth that others try to shirk. My objection is that manning up seems to also entail admitting there is nothing that can be done about it.  It becomes sentimental to think there are ways toward a more just world.

Anti-sentimentalism also alters the form of narratives.  Traditional plots often turn on character development.  To put it most simply: they show characters learning from and being changed by experience.  As Aristotle put it way back when: characters are shown as moving from good fortune to bad, or the reverse.  It doesn’t have to be that schematic, but the point is that experience matters, that neither character nor the world are eternally the same.  Things and people change—and plots are ways of registering and accounting for those changes.  The anti-sentimentalist view tends toward stagnant, determinist, fatalism.  Things are always just about the same: the good suffer, injustice prevails, there is nothing much in the way of improvement to expect or hope for.

It’s this hopelessness that makes me like the John Dewey quote about sentimentalism that I offered a few posts back.  Here it is again:  “Education and morals will begin to find themselves on the same road of advance that say chemical industry and medicine have found for themselves when they too learn fully the lesson of whole-hearted and unremitting attention to means and conditions—that is, to what mankind so long despised as material and mechanical.  When we take means for ends we indeed fall into moral materialism.  But when we take ends without regards to means we degenerate into sentimentalism.  In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost”(Reconstruction in Philosophy, 73).

No surprise, of course, that Dewey, optimist that he is, believes change for the better is possible.  But I want to take up two different thoughts prompted by his statement.

First, that grand ideals like “justice” and “equality” are sentimental if unmoored from concrete ideas about how to put them into practice.  And such sentimentalism leads directly to preaching and exhortation, along with fuzzy thinking that avoids all consideration of means.  I have no more to say on that score.  If the shoe fits . . .

Second, if one has no concrete steps to be taken, I think the form “magical thinking” takes is apocalyptic.  The writer cannot imagine how to transform the world of injustice and suffering he presents.  But the writer also declares this state of affairs is unsustainable and, therefore, will come down with a crash at some unspecified point in the future through some unspecified chain of events.  This is the dream of revolution, but it has become the garden variety claim that current levels of inequality must lead to drastic political upheavals, that current levels of greenhouse gases must lead to transformative environmental disaster, and (of course) to the well-worn belief that economic crisis must lead to the collapse of capitalism.

Waiting for the apocalypse is not a politics.  “To profess to have an aim and then neglect the means of its execution is self-delusion of the most dangerous sort” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, 72-73).  Kant’s categorical imperative gets all the attention, but I have always preferred the “hypothetical imperative” myself.  Basically, Kant says we fail one test of reason when we don’t will the means toward an end.  As I explain it to my students, if your goal is to pass the test on Friday morning, the hypothetical imperative says you must study on Thursday night.  If you go out to the bars, you are being irrational by Kant’s account.

Now, it is true, neither Kant nor Dewey pay enough attention to the case where one wills the means (after having thought carefully about them) but is powerless to put those means into action.  Apocalyptic thinking is a delightful refuge for the powerless, for those who can’t make their desired courses of action a reality.

But there is no reason for such powerlessness to rule supreme in fiction.  We seem to be suffering from a debilitating case of fatalism (suffering and disaster are inevitable and there is nothing we can do about it) combined with a severe lack of imagination (an inability to entertain, at least in thought, pathways toward a better future).  The only means of transformation we seem currently able to credit is catastrophe.  And Dewey would claim that predilection is every bit as sentimental as an Austen or Dickens novel that offers its characters a happy ending.

A Diminished Thing

 

Robert Frost’s sonnet, “The Oven Bird.”

 

There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

 

 

The fit is hardly exact, but the phrase “what to make of a diminished thing” echoes in my head far too often these days.  The leftist dreams of a communist utopia died a slow and very painful death from 1920 to 1989.  But who would have predicted, as the Berlin Wall came down, that allegiance to and belief in “social democracy” would be on life support in 2020?  Among the kinds of intellectuals I hang around with, Elizabeth Warren is a sell-out and Bernie Sanders a tolerable compromise, but just barely.  All the talk—as in the novels I considered in the last post—is about the injustice and cruelty of capitalism, and the implacable racism of the United States.  That injustice and cruelty is endlessly documented; everywhere you scratch the surface, you find perfidy.  Corruption, betrayal, cover-ups, outright theft, and endless, ruthless exploitation. Even worse: the almost invisible “structural racism” that infects everything.  It all must go.  Only wiping the slate entirely clean will create a world we can affirm.

I can’t help but think that John Dewey nails it when he calls this kind of political rhetoric sentimental.  “[W]hen we take ends without regard to means we degenerate into sentimentalism.  In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, 73).  No one is offering anything remotely like a blueprint for how to get from here to there.  We just get endless denunciations of here coupled with (in some cases) the vaguest gestures toward there.  Analyses of how fucked up everything is, coupled with stories of outrageous maltreatment, are a dime a dozen.

Recently there has been a revival of a cultural studies move familiar in the 1980s.  Basically the idea is to show that people are not passive victims and to celebrate their ways of resisting—or, if “resisting” is too strong a word, their way of surviving, of carving out a life under bad conditions.  Two fairly recent books, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019) exemplify this trend.  Tsing’s book is wonderful in every way, an exhilarating read for its introduction of the reader into a sub-culture far from the mainstream and for its intellectual force and clarity.  I found Hartman’s book a harder go.  Hartman works diligently to find the “beauty” in the “wayward” lives that she tries to reconstruct from very scanty historical traces.  Her subjects are black women in northern US cities between 1890 and 1915.  For me, the lives she describes are unutterably sad; I just can’t see the beauty as they are ground down by relentless racism and inescapable poverty.  Let me hasten to add that it is not Hartman’s job to make me feel good.  The point, instead, is that she aims to present these tales as providing some grounds for affirmation—and I just don’t find those grounds as I read her narratives.

I don’t want to try a full engagement with Tsing’s book here.  (I am late to this party; her book, like Hartman’s work, has been much celebrated.)  The very short summary: she tracks the matsutake mushroom from its being picked in Oregon, Finland, Japan, and China to its ending up as a treasured (and expensive) delicacy in Japan.  The ins-and-outs of this story, from the mushrooms own complicated biology (it cannot be cultivated by humans and only flourishes in “ruined” forests, ones that have been discombobulated by extensive logging) to the long human “supply chain” that renders the mushroom a commodity, offer Tsing the occasion to meditate on ecology, human migration, the US wars in Southeast Asia, and global neo-liberalism.

But for my purposes, I simply want to record that Tsing is interested in how people cope in the “ruins” that the contemporary world offers.  The “ruins” of decimated, over-logged forests.  The “ruins” of lives by the American war in Vietnam (spilling over into Laos and Cambodia).  The “ruins” of a neoliberal capitalism that has made traditional jobs (with security, benefits, a visible line of command) obsolete. The “ruin” of all narratives of progress, of all notions that technology or politics is moving us toward a batter future.

For Tsing, at least in this book, there is no idea that this ruination can be reversed, or that there are political models (like social democracy), that might address these hardships and try to ameliorate them. Only someone hopelessly naive or delusional would credit any notion of possible progress. Instead, we just need to be getting on with the hard task of finding a niche in the interstices of this cruel world, whose mechanisms of grinding people and the environment to ruin will continue unimpeded.  She isn’t even indulging some kind of 1960s dream of “dropping out.”  We are all in the belly of the whale, so whatever expedients can be adopted to make the best of it are to be celebrated.

Here is Tsing’s summation of her vision, the last paragraph before her epilogue:

“Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place.  The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment.  It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction.  Luckily there is company, human and not human.  We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscape—the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations.  We can still catch the scent of the latent commons—and the elusive autumn aroma” (282).

Back to autumn, to the oven-bird with its determination to sing even as summer fades away, and we are left with “a diminished thing.”

Futility and Despair

Like Tristram Shandy, I can’t write fast enough to keep up with all the things swirling in my head.  So much is going in—all the reading I am doing plus the daily gleanings from the web—that I have lots that feels like it needs to go out.  I keep falling behind.

However, it is not the futility of my getting it all down or despair over time’s finitude (and its resultant cruelty) that is my topic today.  The topic is contemporary art.

Nick and I had our second zoom conversation about John Dewey’s Art As Experience on Monday.  Dewey argues (both in that book and in a chapter entitled “Qualitative Thought” in Philosophy and Civilization) that humans intuitively grasp situations in their “qualitative unity” before proceeding to any kind of analysis of the components of the situation.  He also (it seems to me, but Nick would disagree) appears to claim that situations actually possess that qualitative unity.  We have satisfactory or fulfilling experiences when we are best aligned with what the situation affords, or when we can work on what it affords to shape it to better suit our needs.  Art is important because it models this fulfilling alignment; it offers instances of creative interaction that brings “form” to the interaction, crafting the situation’s elements into “equilibrium” or “harmony.”

There are features of this view of what art does which, in fact, I find helpful to my ongoing desire to consider the connection between art and meaning.  But I am going to leave that aside for the moment in order to address a different point here—basically the observation that Dewey’s picture of art as stated in the previous paragraph seems utterly antithetical to much artistic practice since 1910.  (On or around 1910, Virginia Woolf told us, human nature changed.)

Much art—and most “high” or “serious” art—of the past 100 years has displayed the futility of all attempts to apprehend or craft “unity.”  “These fragments I have shored against my ruin” can be written over the portals of modern (and postmodern) art—an updated version of “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  Dewey looks old-fashioned and naïve with his talk of unity and harmony.  Of course, that Dewey is old-fashioned and naïve is a standard critique.  Like Whitman, he lacks any idea of evil.

Many modern paintings are cluttered.  They are not “composed,” but scattered, with no clear pathway for the eye to follow, no “form” that brings all the elements into order.

But, for my primary example, I will take the contemporary “serious” novel.  Experimental fiction is pretty much dead, but those avant-garde narratives are all about fragmentation.  The same goes for avant-garde poetry.

More “realistic” fiction, it seems to me, comes in primarily two forms.  There are the domestic novels (think Julia Glass, Rachel Cusk, Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Franzen), rooted in upper middle-class life and its romantic and family problems.  Updated Updike and Cheever.

And there are the novels about social injustice.  These novels (interestingly enough) are, more often, than not “historical”—and tell the tale of how the downtrodden are trodden down, with the rich and powerful escaping scot free.  Colson Whitehead (I have pasted at the end of this post the relevant passages from a recent interview with him) sums it up: “the guilty escape punishment, the innocent suffer.”  This glum conclusion fits any number of novels by Toni Morrison, Sebastian Barry, James Welch, Edward P. Jones, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and others; these victim tales appear to confirm Whitehead’s glum conclusion about “human nature” and the inevitable (?) “tendency” of the “powerful . . . to tyrannise and bully the weak.”  These novels are committed to witnessing, to telling the tales that the powerful would rather remain untold.  They can hardly be faulted for the desire to bring injustice to the light.  But they have nothing to offer beyond witness, beyond indignation.  They don’t imagine (because, it seems, they don’t believe in) any way to move beyond injustice.  Injustice is an old story that is bound to occur again and again.

I think these novels of despair come close to Nietzschean nihilism.  Nietzsche wants to enlist art in the difficult effort to “affirm” this life, even with all its imperfections.  Finding the grounds for affirmation is hardly easy, but giving into despair is, for Nietszche as much as for Christian orthodoxy, the ultimate sin.  For Nietzsche, the solution was the masochistic embrace of suffering, his amor fati.  But James Baldwin offers a different path; his story “Sonny’s Blues” displays his hope (his reliance) on love (a recurrent term in Baldwin) and on art to allow us to endure, perhaps even rise above, the inevitable suffering that life is going to deal out to us.

When talking about my frustration with these novels, Nick reminds me I am just repeating my desire for “liberal comedies.”  I want plots that move us toward more just, more humane societies.  Plots that imagine reform, melioration, in the right direction.  Steps toward a better world—an idea that fits not only with William James’ “meliorism,” but also with Dewey’s concrete account of adjustments to a situation.  The problem with despair is that it is too abstract; it insists that only a global transformation of the whole system (of “human nature”?) can do the job—and then hasn’t a clue about what steps might even be taken to get you closer to such a transformation.  It’s magical thinking, tied to an all or nothing vision.  Either we are living in hell or in heaven—and since it’s obvious we ain’t in heaven, we are clearly in the other place.

Among the non-realistic novelists the same despair is prevalent.  Salman Rushdie and J. M. Coetzee have an equally bleak view of human nature and certainly don’t offer any vision of more just or desirable social arrangements.   In speculative fiction (David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood), some grand catastrophe does bring about the kind of complete transformation more realistic fictions don’t dare to imagine.  But those transformations only deliver a world even worse than the contemporary one.  When it comes to imagining an alternative society, it seems variants of the one offered by The Lord of the Flies is the best we can do.  Ursula LeGuin’s work offers a welcome exception to this generalization about imagined post-catastrophe futures.

There have been some “serious” realistic novels that have attempted to locate their characters in contemporary political/economic context (unlike the domestic novels I mentioned above).  Sebastian Faulks, A Week in December; Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens; John Lanchester, Capital; Joseph O’Neill, Netherland.  The first three are “ensemble” novels, tracking a variety of characters.  And those characters end up with a variety of outcomes—which does avoid the powerful/victim dichotomy of the witness novels.  These novels seem less driven by a need to indignantly call out injustice and more focused on the multiple ways people survive or fail to survive contemporary conditions.

O’Neill’s novel is interesting because it combines the domestic novels focus on family relations with the more sociological interests that drive its portrait of post-9/11 New York City.  Liberal comedy (from Shakespeare to Anthony Trollope to 1930s screwball films and beyond) often rests on a homology between the central couple whose endangered love relationship is the focus of the plot and a reformed society.  If the couple can successfully consummate their love that is because the society which thwarted them has been reformed in the course of the play/novel/film.  (This is basic C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye on the theory of comedy.)

From the start (as recognized by Walter Scott in his commentary on his own novel Waverly), the great problem faced by the “historical novel” (or by any novel attempting to portray individualized fictional characters caught up in events of historical significance) was to make the connection between the character’s eventual fate and what those events wrought.  That Prince Andrei dies in War and Peace is fitting; to be in the Napoleonic Wars would very likely lead one to death.  That was the impact those wars had on individuals.  But the novelist can hardly just march all his characters off to death.

How, then to align the fate of the characters who survive with the state that society reaches after the events of the novel?  The happy marriage of Pierre and Natasha is discontinuous with the reactionary course followed by the Russian state after 1815.  They escape into a separate peace—and that kind of escape (also enjoyed by Waverly in Scott’s novel) becomes the norm in most realistic novels, even the ones that import historical events and historical figures into their plots.  The battle of Culloden destroys Scottish Highland society, but Waverly gives the battle a miss and his life is not destroyed. In O’Neill’s Netherland, the protagonist saves his marriage precisely by renouncing the public world of New York City’s financial industry.  He can have one or the other, but not both.  The corruption of the financial world makes a genuine and sustainable romantic relationship impossible.  The primary character who remains behind in that world after the protagonist abandons it is doomed.

One way, then, to describe the lack of unity that prevails in “modern” art is precisely the ever-widening gulf between public and private.  We live utterly fragmented lives.  Domestic comedy abounds; we can imagine the joys and tribulations of family life and friendship.  We can even imagine the joys and tribulations of the workplace (Parks and Rec; Thirty Rock; The Office), but we can’t translate the comraderies, the necessary tolerances of how others annoy us, the ability to shrug off (even enjoy) differences and eccentricities, into the public sphere.

We can’t connect, as E. M. Forster urged us to do in Howard’s End.  Forster at least had the country house—a domestic space that carries a larger social import—for his effort to bridge the gap between public and private.  We have no apparent bridges of any sort.  We stand dismayed by the nastiness of our politics and the brutalities of our economic order, even as we carve out loves and friendships we can affirm.  No wonder our art is all about disconnection.

Nick’s way of describing modern art’s lack of unity was very different from mine.  He attributed it to art’s becoming more and more entangled in, focused on, its own institutions.  Going that route also highlights disconnection—but now the alienation of art from the “lifeworld” (to resurrect Habermas’ way of talking about this issue).  The idea in Habermas was that modernity tended to segregate various activities (the scientific/technical; the aesthetic; the economic; the scholarly) into relatively autonomous spheres (we could call them “professions,” although he does not) which end up mostly speaking to themselves—and hence divorced from the “lifeworld” (understood as the daily life of social intercourse and domestic relations).  Certainly, Dewey is all about re-integrating the aesthetic back into the ordinary; he wants the aesthetic and the ordinary to be continuous, even though (the topic for a future post) he still wants the aesthetic to be distinctive.

So what Nick is pointing out is that artists speak more and more only to other artists, other insiders.  The practice of art is increasingly self-referential in the sense that works are best understood in dialogue with previous works, with prevailing discussions in the field. This self-enclosure is mirrored by the creation of institutions specific to the practice, and to a primary desire to impress (communicate with) those positioned within the field.

This development of specific institutions and a set of recognized practitioners fragments art in two ways: one, no work can be a self-sufficient unity because it refers to, stands in relation to, other works.  (Dewey actually seems to accept this fact since he is adamant that the present always stands in relation to the past; but that acceptance does seem a problem for his insistence on the “qualitative unity” of a situation.)

Two, more crucially, the more any pursuit becomes closed off from the comprehension of outsiders (the less it engages in fruitful interchanges with different pursuits), the less likely we are to find bridges across the divides between pursuits—and the divide from the lifeworld.  We get here another version of the old Lukacs and Jameson diagnosis: we (and the fate of the novel since Tolstoy and George Eliot is one symptom of this fact) are less and less able to comprehend totality—where “comprehend” means not just “to understand,” but also to capture or contain within any aesthetic or intellectual form.  Fragmentation is the order of the day because unity is now, quite simply, beyond our capabilities.

I have a bit more to say on this topic.  But will stop here for today.

Here is the interview with Colson Whitehead.  I have given you about half of it—but pretty much all the substantive parts.  But here’s the link to the whole thing.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/21/colson-whitehead-we-invent-all-sorts-of-different-reasons-to-hate-people

“It is a story,” says Whitehead, “about how powerful people get away with abusing the powerless and are never called to account.”

He uses the term “human nature” more than once and one senses that the writing of his past couple of books has reinforced his essential belief that, as he says at one point, “people are terrible – we invent all sorts of different reasons to hate people. We always have and we always will.” Does he really believe that? “Well, in terms of human nature, the powerful tend to tyrannise and bully the weak. I really don’t think that will change very much. In fact, I think we will continue to treat each other pretty horribly in the way I described in The Nickel Boys for all eternity.”

For all that, The Nickel Boys, despite passages of dark, almost gothic horror, is a tentatively redemptive fiction, a survivor’s story. I wondered if the creation of the wounded characters in his most recent novel and the tracing of their traumatised lives took a psychological toll on Whitehead.

He tells me that, throughout the writing of the book, he would open a file on his computer every morning and see a note he had posted there when he began. It read: “The guilty escape punishment. The innocent suffer.” He had put it there to remind him what the story he was telling was really about. “And yet,” he says, “the last third of the book is really about all the other stuff that is not in those two lines: what do you do with that? How do you live with that knowledge? And, how do you make a life?”