Category: Contemporary Fiction

Rachel Kushner

I have recently read Rachel Kushner’s novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers.  They are both compelling reads.  Telex is more coherent, telling the story of Castro’s take-over of Cuba, mostly from the perspective of Americans living and working in Cuba at the time.  The narrative evokes both the blindness of those Americans to what is happening—and the nostalgia for pre-Castor Cuba (and their lives there) that afflicts these Americans after they return to the States. 

The Flamethrowers is a mess.  The story wanders all over the place, with various characters and incidents offered up with no subsequent follow through.  But is it always interesting.  In its second half, it wanders into narrating radical (and violent) political action, specifically the Italian Red Brigade of the 1970s and their kidnappings and executions of business executives.  The narrative voice during this section of the novel is curiously disengaged.  It is not best described as a recording of the events that refuses to suggest any stance (moral or emotional) to them.  Rather, there is a kind of unreality about the whole narration, as if (without ever explicitly stating this) the events are presented as an unbelievable fiction, as a visit to an alternative world neither the narrator nor her readers could actually credit.  It’s like the play violence of a video game rather than violence that is actually experienced as a shock or a grim fact.  There is something pro forma about these sections of the novel, as contrasted to the tale of the heroine’s experiences in the first half.  Adding to this effect is the fact that the heroine walks away from the violence in Italy (in which she has become entangled) with little to no discernible effect on her life or attitudes. It’s as if it didn’t happen.

The violence in Telex is not sidestepped in the same way.  Maybe it’s because we are dealing with a successful revolution—and with a civil war that saw wide-spread violence on both sides.  In any case, Telex contends with the issue of the ways violence is utilized in political struggles—and with the divide between those willing (able?) to deploy violence in cold-hearted, “calculated” ways and those to whom violence is beyond the pale (for whatever emotional or moral reasons). 

The following passage leads me to think about the connection between meaning and “the deliberate.”  Obviously, we can do things that convey meanings we never intended to convey.  But there are also cases where we very carefully set out to communicate something, to insure that what we do or say is fraught with meaning.  Cases where we take special care to see that our meaning gets across.  Kushner ties this heightened attention to meaning to certain acts of violence, ones that can be deemed “rhetorical,” through a speech given by the character La Maziere to a group of Castro’s guerillas after they have captured two of the counter-revolutionary forces.

“Executions, La Maziere continued, his voice rising to be sure everyone heard, was an act of intent, purpose, and exactitude. Assassination was a far lower act, an act of opportunity, or worse, ‘necessity’—a word he said as if it were a soiled, smelly rag he held between two fingers.  Execution was a ritualized killing, he emphasized.  It was never, ever, an act of necessity.  It was always an act of choice, a calculated delivery of justice.  And only by the elevated loft of choice, he explained, could the act of killing take on symbolic meaning.  Killing, he said, had meaning, voluptuous and mystical meaning that should never be squandered.  An execution was a rhetorical weapon, a statement that could not be disproved, just as a man could not be restored from death” (pg. 232 of Telex from Cuba).

Meaning is enhanced by ritual, by the elaborate staging/demonstration of deliberate choice, and by full publicity, full openness to view.

Ben Lerner (2)

Floating beneath the surface in Lerner’s 10:24 is a longing for connection, for art’s communicative possibilities to open up a pathway to community.

“[I] felt the small thrill I always felt to a lesser or greater degree when I look at Manhattan’s skyline and the innumerable illuminated windows and the liquid sapphire and ruby of traffic on the FDR Drive and the present absence of the towers.  It was a thrill that only built space produced in me, never the natural world, and only when there was an incommensurablity of scale—the human dimension of the windows tiny from such distance combining but not dissolving into the larger architecture of the skyline that was the expression, the material signature, of a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate register, were nevertheless addressed.  Only an urban experience of the sublime was available to me because only then was the greatness beyond calculation the intuition of community. . . . [W]henever I looked at lower Manhattan from Whitman’s side of the river I resolved to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of this possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body.  What I felt when I tried to take in the skyline—and instead was taken in by it—was a fullness indistinguishable from being emptied, my personality dissolving into a personhood so abstract that every atom belonging to me as good belonged to Noor, the fiction of the world rearranging itself around her.  If there had been a way to say it without it sounding like presumptuous co-op nonsense, I would have wanted to tell her that discovering you are not identical with yourself even in the most disturbing and painful way still contains the glimmer, however refracted, of the world to come, where everything is the same but a little different because the past will be citable in all of its moments, including those that from our present present happened but never occurred.  You might have seen me sitting there on the bench that midnight, my hair matted down by the bandanna, eating an irresponsible quantity of unsulfured mango, and having, as I projected myself into the future, a mild lacrimal event” (108-109).

The theme returns in a short lecture given by the narrator at a round-table featuring three writers.  He has explained how the Challenger disaster and its aftermath (a poetic speech by Ronal Reagan, the rash of anonymously generated jokes about the event that circulate through the culture) set him on the road to becoming a writer.

“If I had to trace my origins as a poet to a specific moment, I’d locate it there, in those modes of recycling.  I make no claims for ‘High Flight’ [a poem Reagan quotes in his speech] as a poem—in fact, I think it’s a terrible poem—and Ronald Reagan I consider a mass murderer.  I don’t see anything formally interesting in the Challenger jokes, I can’t find anything to celebrate there; they weren’t even funny at the time.  But I wonder if we can think of them as bad forms of collectivity that can serve as figures of its real possibility: prosody and grammars the stuff out of which we build a social world, a way of organizing meaning and time that belongs to nobody in particular but courses through us all” (115-116).

The wistfulness here reminds me of John Lennon’s Imagine—and seems tied to the author’s (and our?) inability to access Whitmanian mysticism with any conviction.  The skyline is a monument to collectivity.  It could never have been built except by many human hands working in concert.  And even if the various activities encompassed by city life—“bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity” (108)—are “bad forms of collectivity” they are “figures” of the possibility of collectivity.  Selves share the “meanings” by which “we build a social world.”  The boundaries between selves are utterly porous; we dissolve into one another—and into the stories that we share, the images that guide us.  If only we could tweak those facts, shift them slightly on their axes—then the world and each one of us would be “the same but a little bit different” (a formula for utopia that comes from  Benjamin or Brecht or someone of that ilk; I can’t find the exact source).

We always already exist in collectivities; the struggle is to make them better, to make them serve our deepest longings rather than to stifle and frustrate them.  We fight collectivity (cling to selfishness in all its senses) even as we long for it.  Art is connected to that longing; think of how movies and plays move us to tears, even those of us who almost never cry in “real life.”  We only indulge our longings in the safe space of art, while living our prudent, advantage-seeking, lives in the everyday world.  We know—as Adorno says—what our better selves and a better world look like, and we live out the shame (no matter how deeply we manage to bury it) of the gap between that vision of the good and the sordid realities we inhabit and reproduce.

The web of shared meanings is what we might call “myth”—and what is frightening about the current moment in American history is that the prevailing “myth” is no longer shared. (Probably it never was; more likely is that those who held alternative visions were more ruthlessly silenced in the past.) There are two (at least) utterly incompatible set of meanings circulating through the culture—and they appear so incompatible that the proponents of each find it close to unimaginable to share the national space with the other side.

In a sense, the power of art has never been so dramatically on display.  The left/liberal vision occupies the lion’s share of official culture, from the high art bastions of museums and universities to the culture industry’s popular music, film, and TV.  But the unofficial, unsanctioned world of the internet has spawned the alternative vision of the populist right, which now has its spokesperson in the White House.  Fed by a not inaccurate understanding of its exclusion from “respectable” opinion, populism has developed its alternative modes of communication alongside its refusal to credit anything the official world has to say.

Communication, “spin,” how and to whom facts and meanings are articulated, command the field.  Only catastrophic natural events—the virus, hurricanes, wildfires—seem capable of breaking through the morass of words and images, and not in any definitive, unequivocal way.  That supposed objective barometer of facts on the ground—the market—has proved as fictitious (if not more) than other “social indicators.”  Printing money and piling up debt have become disconnected from any actual consequences.  Inflation remains low, faith in government bonds remains unshaken, the stock market indices remain high.  We do appear to have left a reality-based world far behind.

And yet.  There is so much real and remediable suffering out there.  How did we, the human race, manage to turn all our possibilities, all our astounding capacities, into shit?  Collectively, we have built an amazing world.  But it amazes far more often by its byzantine dysfunctions than its praise-worthy accomplishments.  We can work wonders in medicine, but have developed a bureaucracy for delivering medical care that creates massive amounts of spiritually deadening labor and places obstacles in the way of getting treatment to those in need of it. We can feed seven billion people through our farming practices, but have built a system with perverse incentives that lead to the destruction of food while people go hungry and encourages the depletion of the natural sources of agricultural productivity.  We spend billions of dollars on military hardware, but claim we can’t afford to help the 20% of children who live in poverty.

I have always disliked Lennon’s Imagine.  It seems so removed from actual engagement, so enchanted with its own melancholy.  I find Lerner’s wistfulness more substantial.  He more fully articulates the sense of being both outside and inside of the collective failure.  Outside of it because seemingly unable to effect its unfolding disasters in any way—and outside of it because viewing it from a perspective that makes one unable to take its madness for granted or as inevitable or as immune from harsh judgment.  Inside because one is fully engorged by this whale; one can’t pretend not to be a participant, day in and day out, as one struggles to construct a life, a way of negotiating through this minefield.  Coming to terms with the devil is what we do even if we dream of living otherwise.  Driving one’s car, paying one’s insurance and tax bills to underwrite inhumane systems, consuming then throwing away plastic. The list of contributions we make toward perpetuating the world as currently constituted is endless.

Stop the world, I want to get off.  Whitman’s optimism is no longer available, even if his dreams are.  Lerner returns to Whitman later in the book and wonders about the “ecstasy” that runs through Whitman’s encounters with wounded Union soldiers in the hospitals in Washington DC.  There is something inhuman, deeply disturbing, in how Whitman gets off on the sight of these suffering bodies.  Optimism in such circumstances is reprehensible—and seems linked to an ideology of “glorious sacrifice” that was, I would hope, finally put to rest by World War I.

Where to find that optimism today?  Clearly, some people find in the collectivities created by the demonstrations that have become a recurrent feature of American civil life in 2020.  Insofar as the demonstrations attempt to construct—and make stick—a counter-narrative, a vision of American society antithetical to the racism and division Trump wants to amplify, the battle is on.  It is a war of meanings, and a war between an inclusive vision of collectivity against a divisive one.  Lerner articulates for us the forlorn, but still deeply felt, longing for that inclusive collectivity (the beloved community) even as he reminds us that art (if understood in the widest possible sense) is where articulation takes place, where the meanings we hope to share are first presented.  We can never quite believe that Shelley was right about poets being the unacknowledged legislators, but it is less incredible to recognize how the arts are powerful creators of community—and of the shared meanings that hold communities together.

Ben Lerner’s Novels

I recently read both 10:04 and The Topeka School, Ben Lerner’s second and third novels.  I read his first one, Leaving the Atocha Station, last fall.

Leaving the Atocha Station is a quick, light read, but its neurotic, inept, hipster narrator is so fey, so self-involved, and so irresponsible that he is hard to keep in the reader’s good graces.  The plot is as aimless as the narrator, but the book is blessedly brief, often witty, and always well written.  Geoff Dyer does this thing rather better—and Paris Trance seems the obvious forerunner, maybe even the direct model, for Lerner’s novel.

10:04 is a big step forward, although we still get the bumbling, self-absorbed narrator whose charm Lerner seems to overestimate drastically.  There is also the rather annoying fancy footwork between fact and fiction—so that novel (in Paul Auster fashion) is “about” writing this novel we are reading.  Too cute by half in my opinion.  But there is a lot more to chew on here, especially the narrator’s (Lerner’s?) reflections on various art works (most particularly, Donald Judd’s sculptures) and about the insane New York art market more generally.  The format allows for these mini-essays embedded in the story—and they enliven the book instead of detracting from it (mostly because “the story” is mostly negligible).

It turns out that Lerner just doesn’t do human relationships very well.  His characters interact to some extent, but he never really succeeds in getting the reader to “feel” the emotional struggles that he announces exist between his various characters. In that sense, the novels are rather diagrammatic, not “realized” in the ways you would expect from the “thick” portraits of character and of its unfolding that we traditionally receive from realistic fiction.  (Rachel Cusk’s trilogy—Outlines, Transit, and Kudos—is similarly “thin,” a series of monologues that give us vignettes but no revelatory action or character development over time.)

The Topeka School is both more and less interesting than the reviews had led me to believe. Less interesting insofar as it is not a novel that has much to say about contemporary American society; more interesting in that its ideas (as expressed by a number of intellectual characters who narrate different sections of the novel) are consistently thought-provoking.

The reviews had claimed that Lerner (from Kansas) was, in this novel, giving us an insight into middle America in general and the Trump phenomenon in particular.  In fact, the novel only addresses that complex territory obliquely.  Instead, we get a fairly intricate plot, dotted with interesting characters—a much more diverse tapestry of human types than offered by the first two novels.  Once again, however, the characters are mostly static, interesting because of their idiosyncratic views about a whole range of topics.  There is almost nothing in the novel—despite its framework of intense familial, friendship, and romantic relationships—that immerses the reader in the nitty-gritty of that intensity.

I guess the old saw about showing, not telling, is apposite here.  The analysis of what lies behind how people speak to and act toward others is so forefronted that we are very rarely given the concrete actions themselves or the raw feelings that interactions generate.  (There are some exceptions, like an intense interaction among parents in a New York City playground, but that is an isolated incident with no connection to anything else in the novel, and ends completely inconclusively with no aftereffects.)  That analysis predominates “fits” in the sense that the novel is preoccupied with psychoanalysis; the main character’s parents and his parents’ best friends are all psychoanalysts.

Lerner and Cusk are tremendous talents.  Neither writes a word that is not eminently readable.  But they are “cold” writers even as they write in the “warm” mode of the realist novel.  Both of them are self-consciously re-crafting the novel as a genre, but eschewing at the same time the irrealism of 1960s “experimental fiction.”  Their “meta-fictional” touches are light (heavier in Lerner than in Cusk) and it is not clear to me just what work those touches are meant to be doing.  Postmodernism as parlor tricks, I am tempted to conclude.  Meta-fiction is cute, but trivial, just another trick that can be pulled out of the bag.

Both writers are so intelligent, such interesting observers of contemporary life, that it’s the ideas they offer in novel form, rather than plot or character, that keeps me reading.  Cusk’s insights are almost all relationship-based, and almost exclusively focused on the romantic relations between men and women (with some side glances to parent-child and friendship relations).  That focus does begin to look like a limitation after three novels.  No one in her world has any money worries, or has anything that looks like a serious or troubled relationship to their work.  All the action takes place on airplanes or in comfortable restaurants, coffee shops, or hotels. The not-so-discreet (given her characters’ propensity to spill their souls) life of the bourgeoisie.  Her novels have no urgent news to offer; they begin to seem fairly frivolous by the end.

Lerner engages a wider range of concerns, but barely wanders outside the realm of bohemia.  Even his Topeka novel deals with an intelligentsia that has landed in Topeka because of the famous clinic there.  They live in Topeka, but are not really of that place. The novel features three of four native-born Topekans at the most. Which is why it was so odd that the reviewers thought they were getting some kind of insight into middle America.

The novel does offer one rich insight into America’s current mess.  I was a high school debater—and the novel’s main character is as well.  Apparently (I have no way of knowing if this is actually true, but the novel reports it as being the case), basic debate technique was altered dramatically sometime in the 1990s.  The new technique is called “the spread.”  The idea is to (rapid-fire) present as many possible arguments for your side in your opening speech—so many that your opponents cannot possibly respond to (refute) them in their rebuttal round.  Then in your closing summary, you can claim victory by referring to all the arguments your opponent did not contest.

“The spread” is a perfect description of Trump’s Twitter feed.  He floods the public sphere with so much stuff—and his opponents are driven to distraction thinking they must respond to every one of his tweets.  To leave even one of those tweets uncontested looks like conceding that point to him, while responding to every one of them drives the opponent crazy.  Futility either way.  The spread cannot be beaten precisely because it so fiendishly beats the opponent down.  It is impossible to ever raise one’s head above water as this flood of assertion, misinformation, outright lies, and outrageous proposals comes pouring down. Because there is no filter, no way to decide what is newsworthy or not, there is no way to keep Trump from flooding the channels of information/communication.  And we are all drowning in that flood.

I will write another post where I take up some ideas found in 10:24.

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).