Category: Contemporary Fiction

Of Truth and Lies in the Digital Age

Colin Burrow has a thought-provoking essay (title: “Fiction and the Age of Lies”; link: in the most recent London Review of Books (Vol 42, No 4; 20 Feb 2020).

Two long passages (one that has introduces the key concept of the “algo-lie,” a lie that is targeted to the audience most likely to believe it via the by-now ubiquitous algorithms; the other passage a rebuke of Jonathan Coe’s novel Middle England, which I quoted a few posts back.)

“Political lies now tend to be something more than statements by individuals that are designed to mislead: they are partly generated by the desires and beliefs of the lie-ee. They can be algorithmically created to elicit a particular response from an audience that has been microtargeted, and is fed little drips of misinformation it is predisposed to believe. The guiding presumption of algo-lying is that human beings are as manipulable as white mice. The object is to develop a stimulus that provokes the desired behaviour. Send out the stimulus, irrespective of its truth or falsehood; keep sending. Provided the white mice are in a majority and they all head for the cheese it’s a victory. It doesn’t matter if the stimulus is a lie that generates unpredictable side effects, like a loss of trust in institutions, or if the lies designed to appeal to the white mice so enrage the piebald mice that they start a civil war. It’s short-term outcomes that count.”

Middle England (2019) by Jonathan Coe (b. 1961) strikes me as a classic instance of this problem. It’s a Brexit novel which offers comforting stereotypes – the xenophobic former Birmingham car worker, the wonderful Lithuanian immigrant cleaner – while not having anything to say about the technologies that now influence and distort the opinions of those types. A little texting and emailing is the deepest Coe’s characters get into the world of social media. Fiction that recirculates perspectives on the present which correspond closely to a particular strand of print or electronic media isn’t doing the job fiction should do. It knows what its audience wants to hear, and says it. The problem is that it will therefore sound like lies to those who don’t want to believe it. If the main literary consequence of this latest age of lies is to identify the audience for serious fiction with a small group with mutually sustaining and more or less identical political attitudes then we all should be very afraid for the future of fiction.”

I don’t think much in the way of comment is needed.  Burrow has a touching faith that novels are supposed to help us out of our mess by providing a thick analysis of the ways we (and truth) are manipulated using the new digital tools.  He ends the essay with a call for the “great British technonovel of the 21st century” (the British nationalism here must be noted) and the very last sentence of the essay is “But if our present age of lies has one good consequence it would be that book,” as if a great novel would be sufficient consolation for the general woe. Or is that last sentence a joke?  It doesn’t read like one in context.

The Tree of Life

I have just finished reading Richard Powers’ latest novel, The Overstory (Norton, 2018).  Powers is his own distinctive cross between a sci-fi writer and a realist.  His novels (of which I have read three or four) almost always center around an issue or a problem—and that problem is usually connected to a fairly new technological or scientific presence in our lives: DNA, computers, advanced “financial instruments.”  As with many sci-fi writers, his characters and his dialogue are often stilted, lacking the kind of psychological depth or witty interchanges (“witty” in the sense of clever, off-beat, unexpected rather than funny) that tend to hold my interest as a reader.  I find most sci-fi unreadable because too “thin” in character and language, while too wrapped up in elaborate explanations (that barely interest me) of the scientific/technological “set-up.” David Mitchell’s novels have the same downside for me as Powers’: too much scene setting and explanation, although Mitchell is a better stylist than Powers by far.

So is The Overstory Powers’ best novel?  Who knows?  It actually borrows its structure (somewhat) from Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, while the characters feel a tad less mechanical to me.  But I suspect that’s because the “big theme” (always the driving force of Powers’s novels) was much more compelling to me in this novel, with only Gain of the earlier ones holding my interest so successfully.

The big theme: how forests think (the title of a book that is clearly situated behind Powers’s work even though he does not acknowledge it, or any other sources.)  We are treated to a quasi-mystical panegyric to trees, while being given the recent scientific discoveries that trees communicate with one another; they do not live in accordance with the individualistic struggle for existence imagined by a certain version of Darwinian evolution, but (rather) exist within much larger eco-systems on which their survival and flourishing depend.  The novel’s overall message—hammered home repeatedly—is that humans are also part of that same eco-system—and that competition for the resources to sustain life as contrasted to cooperation to produce and maintain those resources can only lead to disaster.  Those disasters are not just ecological (climate change and depletion of things necessary to life), but also psychological.  The competitive, each against each, mentality is no way to live.

I am only fitfully susceptible to mystical calls to experience some kind of unity with nature.  I am perfectly willing to embrace rationalistic arguments that cooperation, rather than competition, is the golden road to flourishing.  And, given Powers’s deficiencies as a writer, I would not have predicted that the mysticism of his book would move me.  But it did.  That we—the human race, the prosperous West and its imitators, the American rugged individualists—are living crazy and crazy-making lives comes through loud and clear in the novel.  That the alternative is some kind of tree-hugging is less obvious to me most days—but seems a much more attractive way to go when reading this novel.

I have said Powers is a realist.  So his tree-huggers in the novel ultimately fail in their efforts to protect forests from logging.  The forces of the crazy world are too strong for the small minority who uphold the holistic vision.  But he does have an ace up his sleeve; after all, it is “life” itself that is dependent on interlocking systems of dependency. So he does seem to believe that, in the long run, the crazies will be defeated, that the forces of life will overwhelm the death-dealers.  Of course, how long that long run will be, and what the life of the planet will look like when the Anthropocene comes to an end (and human life with it?) is impossible to picture.

Life will prevail.  That is Powers’ faith—or assertion.  Is that enough?  I have also read recently an excellent book by Peter J. Woodford: The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and its Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2018).  Woodford makes the convincing argument that Nietzsche takes from Darwin the idea that “life” is a force that motivates and compels.  Human behavior is driven by “life,” by what life needs.  Humans, like other living creatures, are puppets of life, blindly driven to meet its demands.  “When we speak of values, we speak under the inspiration, under the optic of life; life itself forces us to establish values; when we establish values, life itself values through us” (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).


Here is Woodford’s fullest explanation of Nietzsche’s viewpoint:

“The concept that allows for the connection between the biological world, ethics, aesthetics, and religion is the concept of a teleological drive that defines living activity.  This drive is aimed at its own satisfaction and at obtaining the external conditions of its satisfaction. . . . Tragic drama reenacts the unrestricted, unsuppressed expression of [the] inexhaustible natural eros of life for itself. . . . Nietzsche conceived life as autotelic—that is, directed at itself as the source of its own satisfaction.  It was this autotelic nature of life that allowed Nietzsche to make the key move from description of a natural drive to discussion of the sources and criteria of ethical value and, further, to the project of a ‘revaluation of value’ that characterized his final writings.  Life desires itself, and only life itself is able to satisfy this desire.  So the affirmation of life captures what constitutes the genuine fulfillment, satisfaction, and flourishing of a biological entity.  Nietzsche’s appropriation of Darwinism transformed his recovery of tragedy into a project of recovering nature’s own basic affirmation of itself in a contemporary culture in which this affirmation appeared, to him at least, to be absent.  His project was thus inherently evaluative at the same time that it was a description of a principle that explained the nature and behavior of organic forms” (38).

Here’s my takeaway.  Both Powers and Nietzsche believe that they are describing the way that “life” operates.  Needless to say, they have very different visions of how life does its thing, with Powers seeing human competitiveness as a perverted deviation from the way life really works, while Nietzsche (at least at times) sees life as competition, as the struggle for power, all the way down.  (Cooperative schemes for Nietzsche are just subtle mechanisms to establish dominance—and submission to such schemes generates the sickness of ressentiment.)

What Wofford highlights is that this merger of the descriptive with the evaluative doesn’t really work.  How are we to prove that life is really this way when there are life forms that don’t act in the described way?  Competition and cooperation are both in play in the world.  What makes one “real life,” and the other some form of “perversion”?  Life, in other words, is a normative term, not a descriptive one.  Or, at the very least, there is no clean fact/value divide here; our biological descriptions are shot through and through with evaluation right from the start.  We could say that the most basic evaluative statement is that it is better to be alive than to be dead.  Which in Powers quickly morphs into the statement that it is better to be connected to other living beings within a system that generates a flourishing life, while in Nietzsche it becomes the statement that it is better to assume a way of living that gives fullest expression to life’s vital energies.

[An aside: the Nazis, arguably, were a death cult–and managed to get lots and lots of people to value death over life.  What started with dealing out death to the other guy fairly quickly moved into embracing one’s own death, not–it seems to me–in the mode of sacrifice but in the mode of universal destruction for its own sake.  A general auto de fe.]

In short, to say that life will always win out says nothing about how long “perversions” can persist or about what life actually looks like.  And the answer to the second question—what life looks like—will always be infected by evaluative wishes, with what the describer wants life to look like.

That conclusion leaves me with two issues.  The first is pushed hard by Wofford in his book.  “Life” (it would seem) cannot be the determiner of values; we humans (and Powers’ book makes a strong case that other living beings besides humans are in on this game) evaluate different forms of life in terms of other goods: flourishing, pleasure, equality/justice.  This is an argument against “naturalism.”  Life (or nature) is not going to dictate our values; we are going to reserve the right/ability to evaluate what life/nature throws at us.  Cancer and death are, apparently, natural, but that doesn’t mean we have to value them positively.

The second issue is my pragmatist, Promethean one.  To what extent can human activity shape what life is.  Nietzsche has always struck me as a borderline masochist.  For all his hysterical rhetoric of activity, he positions himself to accept whatever life dishes out.  Amor fati and all that.  But humans and other living creatures alter the natural environment all the time to better suit their needs and desires.  So “life” is plastic—and, hence, a moving target.  It may speak with a certain voice, but it is only one voice in an ensemble.  I have no doubt that it is a voice to which humans currently pay too little heed. But it is not a dictator, not a voice to which we owe blind submission.  That’s because 1) we evaluate what life/nature dishes out and 2) because we have powers on our side to shape the forms life takes.

Finally, all of this means that if humans are currently shaping life/nature in destructive, life-threatening ways, we cannot expect life itself to set us on a better course.  The trees may win in the long run—but we all remember what Keynes said about the long run.  In the meantime, the trees are dying and we may not be very far behind them.

The Slime

Jo Baker, the English novelist who previously wrote a book about the servants in Bennett home of Pride and Prejudice, has written a subsequent novel, A Country Road, A Tree (Knopf, 2016), that follows Samuel Beckett from 1939 to 1945.  The title is the worst thing about the book, which comes very close to being a masterpiece for long stretches and is consistently good for its whole length.  Baker makes it clear in her afterword that she hero-worships Beckett, but the novel itself is clear-eyed, presenting him as the pain in the ass he undoubtedly was, while also getting inside of the bleak integrity that motivated him even as the novel refuses to make that integrity heroic.  It is just who Beckett is: detached, guilty, unable to see much point in anything, but still unable to be passive in the face of evil even as he despairs (at times) about an ineptitude that (at other times) he uses to withdraw from the world and from others.  The feat of the novel is to make Beckett make sense—which, considering the extent to which his books and world-view repel me, is an astounding imaginative feat.  I told my Joyce class in our last meeting that finishing Ulysses with them suggested to me that it was time to pick up Beckett again after forty years.  So the trilogy lies ahead of me.  And we’ll see where else I will go from there.

In the meantime, here’s a set of passages from the Baker novel.  The first is a conversation between Beckett and Anna Beamish, an Irish writer he meets in the south of France in 1943, at a time when Beckett is hiding out from the Gestapo because his resistance cell has been betrayed, several of its members arrested and, presumably, tortured.

Anna:  “But what was this writing that did occur, despite your difficulties/”

He raises a shoulder.  “It never came to very much.”

“Get away of that with you.”

He catches her smile.  He knows he will be half-cut and stinking of booze by the time he gets back to Suzanne [Beckett’s partner and, later, spouse], and that Suzanne will be cross and say that she isn’t cross, and that this state will go on for days, but it is a long time since he has felt so entirely at his ease, a very long time indeed, and it is worth the price that must be paid for its continuance.

“And no,” he says.  “I just can’t see the point of it all.”

“Because of the war?”  She tilts her head, considering, as she refills their glasses.  “There’s still the oldest and best reason.  Even in war, even in any circumstances, really.  That still applies.”

“What’s that then.”

“Spite,” she says.

He snorts.

“No, I am serious,” she says, not very seriously.  “You need a bit of spite, a bit of venom, to keep you going.  Particularly at the start, when no one gives a damn what you’re up to.”

“Well, yes, I suppose so.”

“And then, of course, it’s necessary.”


“If one is not writing, one is not quite oneself, don’t you find?”

And he thinks: the sweaty sleepness nights in Ireland, heart racing, battling for breath.  Frank’s [Beckett’s older brother] gentle company the only thing that could calm him.  The two things are connected: the writing and the panic.  He just had not put them together, until now.

“It’s like snails make slime,” she’s saying.  “One will never get along, much less be comfortable, if one doesn’t write.”

He huffs a laugh.

“So.”  She shrugs.  “There you are.  You’re stuck with it.”

He raises his glass.  She chinks it.

“To spite,” she says.

“And slime.”

They drink.  (178-79).

[A little later, when Beckett is back at his desk]:

He stares now at the three words he has written.  They are ridiculous.  Writing is ridiculous.  A sentence, any sentence, is absurd.  Just the idea of it: jam one word up against another, should-to-shoulder, jaw-to-jaw; hem them in with punctuation so they can’t move an inch.  And then hand that over to someone else to peer at, and expect something to be communicated, something understood.  It’s not just pointless.  It is ethically suspect.

And yet he needs it.  As Miss Beamish said. He has to make the slime that will ease him through the world.  (179-180).

[And one last passage]:

In the looped shade cast by the arches, he casts off his boots and socks and dips his feet into the stream.  It is ice; it is vivid and it makes him gasp.  His feet are all bones, bunions and blisters and ragged yellow nails as the water tumbles round them, and the one toe with the missing joint, as ugly as sin, and as human.  He feels sorry for his feet; he knows what they’ve been through.

And so one finds one goes on living.  One makes slime and one drags oneself along through the world.  Because life is an active decision now.  An act of resistance.  And there is a certain satisfaction in it.  One lives, however hard the struggle, to spite the cunts who want one dead.  (198-99).

I don’t want to say I am Beckett.  It is hard, in fact, to imagine a life lived in a way more diametrically opposed to what Becket stands for as my life.  But I will avow (even as the pretension of it makes me cringe) that I am a writer.  I will be banging away at this blog until the day I die.  It is necessary to me.

And, yes, partly it is a weird kind of spite—a spite against that death which will eventually get me, but also a spite against time which swallows everything up, and a spite against anonymity and invisibility.  I will make my mark—even if it is a fruitless as the dog’s pissing against a tree. No one is out to kill me, but the world’s indifference to the fact of my existence is enough to motivate some kind of push-back, some kind of continual assertion that “I am here, you fuckers.”

The purity of this blog has been a solace to me, pouring out all these thousands of words that nobody reads.  I have become like so many writers, producing more than anyone could read, could keep up with.  And the lack of readers, the privacy of this barely public forum, is a solace, is liberating.  I am not trying to do anything, no longer writing for my professional advancement or reputation, no longer aiming to influence others.  I am just pouring out the words—and while it is not quite pleasurable, it is beyond a shadow of a doubt necessary.  I need to keep doing this because it is what and who I am.

I approach retirement.  I have imagined that I will paint in retirement, put the books and pen away, and pick up a brush.  I think I will do that.  But I now know that I also will keep writing.  I can’t not keep writing.  And this blog has given me the perfect format.  None of the fuss of sending off to publishers, of pushing a book into print that no one will read any more than this blog is read.  Goodbye to all that.

Really?  Visions of books to write still dance in my head, as they have ever since I was 18.  Will there be another book?  Perhaps.  The arduous discipline of getting a book into shape–so different from the free flow of these blog posts–seems distasteful to me at the moment, a task I no longer want to impose on myself, taking the lazy way out of writing this blog instead.  But that might change.


Here’s a passage from Jonathan Coe’s excellent 2004 novel, The Closed Circle.

“. . . the young couple, who had arrived just behind Paul in a white stretch limo were enjoying the attention of a crowd of journalists and photographers.  This couple, whom Paul had not recognized, had last year been two of the contestants on Britain’s most popular primetime reality TV show.  For weeks they had kept the public guessing as to whether or not they were going to have sex with each other on camera.  The tabloid papers had devoted hundreds of column inches to the subject.  Neither of them had talent, or wisdom, or education, or even much personality to speak of.  But they were young and good-looking, and they dressed well, and they had been on television, and that was enough.  And so the photographers kept taking pictures, and the journalists kept trying to make them say something quotable or amusing (which was difficult , because they had no wit, either).  Meanwhile, Doug could not help noticing, right next to them, waiting for his wife to emerge from the ladies’, the figure of Professor John Copland, Britain’s leading geneticist, one of its best-selling science authors, and regularly mentioned as potential Nobel prizewinner.  But no one was taking his photograph, or asking him to say anything.  He could have been a cab driver, waiting to drive one of the guests home, as far as anybody was concerned.  And for Doug this situation encapsulated so perfectly everything he wanted to say about Britain in 2002—the obscene weightlessness of its cultural life, the grotesque triumph of sheen over substance, all the clichés which were only clichés, as it happened, because they were true—that he was, perversely, pleased to be witnessing it” (275-76).

Not a good passage; usually Coe avoids editorializing like this in his novel.  But I wanted to comment on it because 1) I usually, by absenting myself completely from it, avoid “weightless” culture while 2) fighting shy of the clichéd lament about its “obscenity” (laments that echo through the two hundred plus years of despair over the mediocrity of bourgeois, democratic, non-noble mores).  It is interesting to see Coe feeling compelled to both make the clichéd complaint and to chide himself for making it in almost the same breath.  At some level, we elites are not allowed to sound like Flaubert anymore, not allowed to express our distaste—and, yes, our contempt—for what gets dished out on reality TV shows.  Perhaps Milan Kundera was the last fully self-righteous and completely un-self-aware critic of kitsch.  Even as his notion of weightlessness (“the unbearable lightness of being,” such a portentous but still fantastic title/phrase) winds up being little more than the fact that men find it unbearable to be faithful to just one woman.  Kundera’s petulance and (ultimately) silliness put the last stake through the heart of “high” culture’s contempt for low.

But, still.  I have seen Fox news only three or four times in my life; read People  magazine the same number of times, and have never seen a reality TV show.  When I do encounter such things, I am (I admit) flabbergasted as well as bored.  That such trash fills the channels of communication is a mystery as unfathomable to me as the idea that people buy $10,000 watches.  Who would do such a thing—and for what earthly reason?  I don’t even have a condescending explanation to offer.  Fascination/obsession with the British royal family fits into the same category for me.

Meanwhile—and I don’t think Coe sees this—his ignored professor is a “best-selling” author and likely to win a Noble prize–so hardly universally treated like a “cab driver.”  Yeats and W. B. Auden are just two among the great early 20th century poets who lived in fairly dire poverty.  Even the post World War II poets—Berryman, Jarrell, Schwartz and the like—were spared that kind of poverty by having moved into sinecures in the beefed-up post-war universities.  Twenty-first century poets will complain bitterly about how few books they sell, but they are lionized within the tight confines of the “poetry world,” giving readings to robust audiences, and never threatened with the kind of poverty that Yeats took for granted.  We live in a world of niches now, so that no poet today can command a nation’s attention the way Yeats did (of course, he had the advantage of writing for a very small nation, about four million people strong, half the size of today’s New York City or London), even though no poet today can be as poor as Yeats.  The niches, in other words, reward well—have cultural capital in both its forms (financial and reputational) available for distribution.

All of this has to do, in very large part, with the ways that the post-war universities have become the patrons for the arts in our time.  Outside of the university it is very hard to make a living by the sweat of your pen.  The Grub St man of letters, writing his reviews for the papers and the weeklies, no longer exists—while no poet and very few novelists can make a living apart from teaching creative writing.  But the universities do provide a structure that insures rewards.

What everyone keeps lamenting these days (instead of lambasting the meretricious glob of TV and the tabloids) is the utter lack of contact between the niches.  The “culture” we teach in school is utterly divorced from the “culture” our students access outside of school.  They know nothing, and care less, for the material to which we introduce them—except for the very small minority we convert over to what by now should be called “school” culture, not “high” culture.

School culture does get a boost from all those middle to upper middle class parents who, for various reasons, see fit to give their children violin, ballet, singing, and (less frequently) art and acting lessons in lieu of (or in addition to) having them play little league or soccer or join a swim team.  The arts/athletics divide in American child rearing practices deserves sociological study.  Both for characterizing the parents who give their children different kinds of lessons—and in a longitudinal study of what effect those lessons have on later choices in life (chances of going to art museums or to the symphony; kinds of career paths taken).  And how does deep involvement in youth sports culture track to an obsession with celebrities or TV world?  Not any obvious connection there.

These schisms no doubt always existed in American culture.  But they didn’t used to track so directly to different political allegiances/views.  My colleague Jonathan Weiler thinks he can tell your political affiliating after asking only four questions, one of which is your emotional response to Priuses.  I have fear he is right.

And, as usual, most perplexing–and disheartening–to me is the deep hostility that such divides now generate.  Just as I really cannot understand why the uber-rich are so discontented, so determined to increase the financial insecurity of their employees, I cannot understand why our cultural warriors are out to destroy the universities.  Yes, its partly their war against all things public.  UNC is in the cross-hairs in a way that Duke will never be.  But it is more than that.  They have some leverage over UNC; they’d go after Duke as well if they could.  The need to punish one’s enemies as well as look to one’s own well-being is what I don’t get.  Peaceful co-existence of the various niches, the indifference of tolerance, is off the table it seems.  I keep referring back (in my mind) to a comment Gary Wills made years ago about the Republican nominating convention (of 1992 or 1996; I don’t remember what year).  He reported that over 30% of the delegates were millionaires, yet they seethed with discontent and rage.  What objective reason did they have to be so agitated? Life in the US had treated them damn well.  The same, of course, can be said of Donald Trump in spades.  What is the source of all his anger?  Pretty obviously the fact that he does not feel respected by the cultural elites.  So he wishes to destroy them, to cause them maximum pain.

A final question: does meretricious popular culture, all that weightless trash, always have this kind of aggression against dissenters to that culture packed within it?  In other words, I am back to thinking, yet again, about resentment–about its sources and about the cultural/societal locations in which it lurks.


“This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men.  He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled.  The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery, the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives.  Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared.  The relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel.”

This is the opening paragraph of Michel Houellebecq’s novel, The Elementary Particles (1998).  Let me pair it with a passage from John Berger’s Portraits, from a short piece he wrote about the Fayum portraits in 2000.

“The situation at the end of our century is different.  The future has been, for the moment, downsized, and the past is being made redundant.  Meanwhile the media surround people with an unprecedented number of images, many of which are faces.  The faces harangue ceaselessly by provoking envy, new appetites, ambition, or, occasionally, pity combined with a sense of impotence.  Further, the images of all these faces are processed and selected in order to harangue as noisily as possible, so that one appeal out-pleads and eliminates the next appeal.  And people come to depend upon this impersonal noise as a proof of being alive.”

I just don’t see it.  Do I live in a bubble?  I read about the ravages Facebook is causing for adolescents, or the booming market in plastic surgery, or the frantic search for status and wealth among various social sub-groups.  And I don’t see it in the world I inhabit.  Kiernan and Siobhan’s friends and contemporaries certainly suffer the ills—and anxieties—of economic precariousness and over indebtedness.  But they aren’t unstable consumers, with lives dictated by social (or any other) media.

Yes, the future has been downsized and a sense of impotence about society’s general dysfunction and sheer nastiness reigns.  But the people I know feel very much alive; the scariness of a world out of control is more than enough to keep the nerve ends jangling.

And in their personal lives—their relations to family and friends and colleagues—they are not indifferent and cruel.  Even out in the public spaces of the city, the vibe is infinitely better than it was in the 1970s.  Conviviality is palpable—and can pretty much be counted on in most interactions with strangers.  It is the disjunct between this face-to-face decency and the nastiness of our politics and the on-line shit that is most striking to me.  For the most part, it seems to me people are remarkably resistant to the poison seeping through the system.

But maybe it’s the bubble I occupy, the world of the professional upper middle class.  A word with very few divorces, very little domestic abuse, very little drug and alcohol abuse.  Maybe under the polite veneer, chaos, anger, and horrors lurk.  It would speak of an unbelievable cover-up if such were the case.  I am hardly denying that the opioid epidemic or domestic violence or homophobia or racism exist.

I think what I am trying to say comes down to four claims, all of which I only advance tentatively because I am not by any means convinced I understand what is going on. Here are the claims

  1. Our economics and our politics have become more nasty, but there are strong counter-vailing forces.  Those forces widen the gap between public life (the structure of the imagined, non-face-to-face worlds of commerce and politics and the media) and the concrete face-to-face interactions of everyday life (including in the workplace to a large extent).  That the strain of this gap has not, thus far, led to serious disruptions is surprising to me.  By which, I guess I mean, that the disruptions have only been manifested on the personal level—in domestic violence or drug/alcohol abuse—not in much serious push-back against the inhumanity of corporations treating employees as replaceable parts and subjecting them to increasingly demeaning surveillance.
  2. The impact of the increased nastiness has been felt very unequally. No surprise there since the increased nastiness has been accompanied by huge upsurges in economic inequality.  Where people are doing quite well—as they are in Chapel Hill—the social ills of our time are not very manifest.  But those class differences do not explain the convivial vibe in America’s cities or the declining crime rates.  The “losers” in the next economic regime are, for the most part, still “nice” to others.  It is sort of like Charlie Kruzman’s work on the “missing’ Muslim terrorists; given the hordes of losers, it is striking how few of them adopt the kind of indifference or cruelty toward others that Houellebecq claims is general.
  3. So, one the one hand, I incline to an almost economic determinist viewpoint when it comes to domestic violence and drug/alcohol abuse, thus explaining why certain classes are more afflicted with these ills than others. (Of course, I am only talking general trends here. The economically fortunate can still be alcoholics, and domestic abusers.)  But when it comes to homophobia and racism, I am inclined to say that values other than the economic remain incredibly strong—and perhaps even stronger than—economically driven beliefs and behaviors.  This works both ways.  Residual decency, the considerate ways we interact with others, prove resistant to the prevailing economic modes of relationship.  The economic—for better and for worse—does not carry all before it.
  4. Similarly, let’s no overestimate the effectiveness of media. People have developed all kinds of ways to shut media messages off.  The overload of which Berger speaks is itself a disabling factor.  Everyone has to create a filter against such bombardment.  Confirmation bias suggests that we only hear the messages we are predisposed to hear—which is one way of saying that most messages don’t get through and that the power of messages to change our basic beliefs is severely limited.  Conversion is an astoundingly rare experience.

In sum, I just don’t see that generalizations about the despair of our times—and how they have changed basic behaviors tout court—are credible.  There is more variety out there than such pronouncements credit.  And, frankly, just much more good behavior than they are willing to admit.

So Little Time

In an early David Lodge novel (I can’t recall its title), the narrator asserts that the difference between characters in novels and people in real life is that the characters have way more sex and less children.

I am hardly going to deny that contemporary novels usually feature more and better sex than most of us get to enjoy.  But the more striking wish fulfillment embedded in the novels I read is the abundance of time.

In A Little Life, the main character Jude is an accomplished pianist, an astounding cook (especially of pastries), takes long walks around New York City (at least until he loses his legs), works long days and most weekends at his law firm, maintains a variety of friendships, goes to art openings, the movies and plays, and oversees the renovation of at least two apartments and one house.  Not to mention the frequent trips to Europe, especially London and Paris.  If only . . .

There was brief period to time in my life when I was lonely and had time on my hands, basically the first few years of graduate school.  I did, in some ways, get more done in that time than I can, in memory, credit as possible.  The amounts I read and wrote are staggering to recall at this late date.  But even at that time I always felt pressed for time, always felt I was giving things a lick and a polish on the idea that I would return to them and give them their proper due, my full attention, at some later date.

That time in my life came to an end with the formation of some close friendships—and then my first marriage and my first job.  From that day until this, I have been deeply entangled in a network of obligations and commitments that leave little time to breathe.  Not that I am complaining.  I wanted desperately in my “out” years to move to the center of my time (a phrase from Thomas Hardy that has always been a touchstone for me).  But this busyness is always haunted by the sense of things not done, of interests left unexplored, or of tasks done in a half-assed way because of time constraints.  And it is that sense of constant hurry, or a total lack of leisure, that novels fail to portray.

Like the dyer’s hand, my nature is subdued.  I don’t think, at this point, that I am capable of doing something slowly, with pain-staking care.  I have become habituated to doing things quickly, to an ingrained sense of what is “good enough,” thus leaving time to move on to the next thing.  Just as I know that moving to the country in order to secure peace and quiet would be crazy for someone of my temperament, so the notion that I could settle into one or two activities pursued at length is most likely delusionary.  My attention span might be longer than that of our perennially maligned millennials, but I don’t want to disconnect any more than they do, even if my connections are not as often virtual.  I crave the constant input, the pace that is a little too fast for comfort, but frantic in ways that make me feel energized and alive.  Better manic than depressed any day.

Effortless Wealth

I have recently read two long novels, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas.  That I got through both of them is testament to their ability to grab a reader since, in my cranky old age, I now abandon novels sixty, eight, even a hundred twenty pages in, if I lose interest.

One striking thing in both novels is that the characters become wealthy way past ordinary dreams.  A thirteen year old son in the Wolas novel starts a software company that makes him a billionaire by the age of twenty-two, while his mother, the Joan Ashby of the title, just has to have her fiction submitted anonymously to a literary agent to secure million dollar advances and two million dollar movie deals.  In A Little Life the climb to fame and fortune takes a little bit longer (one of the novel’s strengths is its portrayal of young artists on the make in New York City), but the four friends at the core of the novel each succeed in ways denied to 99% of humanity, becoming a famous movie star, an acclaimed painter, a highly successful architect, and a top corporate lawyer respectively.  And they have the multiple houses and fabulous vacations to show for their virtue-gotten wealth.

Yanagihara is shrewd about the moment of the “turn,” the moment when her protagonists realize that they have “made it,” that they have stepped across the line into success.  But the shrewdness doesn’t extend to a realization that the “turn” happens to very few.  Most people slug along, with successes here and there, but without ever crossing that line, without even securing permanent fame or security.  They have “good enough” careers that are always a struggle, always retain the possibility of collapsing, don’t ever “make it” once and for all.  Just like very few people attain the levels of wealth that allow all money worries to disappear entirely.  Both novels do suggest that for people under forty these days, especially if your life is centered in New York City, it is obvious that being a millionaire doesn’t cut it.  Only hundreds of millions reaching toward a billion register in today’s economy—or today’s dreamscape.

Does this matter?  In one way, no.  If an author wants to take money and career anxieties off the table in order to focus on other things, that’s OK.  But in another way it does raise the question of the “realistic” novel.  Both of these novels tell stories about people presented as our contemporaries.  Both aspire to psychological depth and complexity.  They do aspire to be reports to readers about our current physical, mental, and spiritual condition.  So I can’t help but think that their wet dream visions of fame and wealth are telling in and of themselves.  It seems to suggest that what the two authors truly want is fame and fortune. Even if they, F. Scott Fitzgerald fashion, must rely on sheer magic to get to that promised land.  The rest be damned.

Wolas’s novel comes very, very close to making that point its main theme.  Her heroine, Joan Ashby, deeply regrets having sacrificed her art to family life.  Her “resurrection” comes with abandoning that family and, especially, her responsibilities as a mother.  Of course, she is rewarded by writing a best-selling novel and meeting a dreamy new lover.  Naturally, the new man is not just a hunk, but also a world-famous photographer. When we occupy such a blatant script of wish fulfillment, it’s hard to know how to credit the “truths” the novel clearly aspires to convey to us.

Even more confusing is the fact that the central event of the novel makes no sense at all.  Joan Ashby’s son (the other one, not the computer genius) steals an unpublished novel of hers and has it published under a pseudonym.  Somehow this is meant to assuage his horror at being the untalented one of the family.  But how?  Since the book is published under a pseudonym and he must refuse all in-person interviews or book signings in order to keep his nefarious deed a secret, what exactly did he expect to get out of this?

His mother, upon finding out, doesn’t confront him and ask why he has done this, but flees instead to India in hopes of meeting the Dalai Lama, who will bring her enlightenment.  But she also nurses a sense of deep grievance.  Her son has stolen her soul by stealing her novel, committing a sin that is irreparable.  But the remedy lies directly to hand.  Just announce to the world that the book was published under a pseudonym, but is actually the work of Joan Ashby.  There are plenty of hints, although never a direct statement, that Joan craves the attention and acclaim that comes with successful authorship.  It is that which the son has stolen from her since, after all, she has all the rest: the satisfaction of having written a well-received novel, the knowledge of having gained many readers, and all the money the book has earned.  Yet—and this is the kicker—the novel clearly expects us to sympathize entirely with Joan, to feel as outraged as her with what has transpired, and to see her flight (and refusal to deal with either her son or her husband) as not only understandable, but as heroic and noble.  The lack of any dissenting perspectives on Joan robs the book of the very depth to which it aspires.  Chasing fame and fortune trumps all else—and it is just assumed that, of course, readers will agree.  We will root for Joan and be thrilled when, in the end, she gets to have it all.

The Yanagihara novel is more complex.  It is, as its many readers and reviewers have noted, a melodrama.  Characters come in only two shades: black and white.  The one exception is the painter J.B., who drops out of the novel about half-way through.  But what the reviews I have read did not mention is how class-bound the melodrama is.  There is a wild America out there, the America of what we now think of as Trumpland.  It is a violent place, made up of sexual perverts and violent sadists.  It has no redeeming qualities and can only treat an innocent like Jude (the novel’s victim) with endless abuse.  But if you can sail from that hell into a liberal arts college and get taken up by the members and scions of the professional upper middle class, all will be well.  These people are so well-behaved, so well-meaning, so nice.  Except for one bad encounter with a violent lover, Jude is only surrounded by supportive, loving, non-violent people once he gets to college at age sixteen.  Niceness can’t overcome the traumas of Jude’s horrible childhood—which is why the New Yorker review found the novel so bracing.  Here was a writer brave enough to forego redemption or recovery for its victimized protagonist. But that’s not really how it happens.  Jude is saved by Willhelm’s love.  The author has to kill Willhelm off in a car accident to get Jude to the desired end: his suicide.  Daniel Medelsohn in the New York Review of Books thus proclaims the author the true sadist of this tale—and wonders why readers have loved a book that tortures its main character over hundreds of pages.

The lesson in Wolas’s novel seems pretty clear: money and a love of art will get you through.  Neither alone is enough, but if you have both, then you can survive this rough world.  There is more than that to Yanagihara’s tale.  What makes A Little Life such a moving novel (it is a very, very powerful melodrama, with the full Dickensian ability to make you cry) is its insistence that the real key—even though money and satisfying, well received work are essential—is friendship.  Neither novel believes (if that is the right word) in romantic love.  For Wolas, such love is a trap.  For Yanagihara, such love is only valuable the more it resembles, shades into, friendship.  Companionship is at the heart of A Little Life and the source of its emotional richness.  A disdain of companionship as weakness is what finally marks the airlessness of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby.