Writing recently in the New York Review of Books blog, Tim Parks has been wondering if we have grown out of fiction—if the novel has lost its sustaining purpose. By that he seems to mean that once upon a time the novel used to perform an important social function by providing a space for society to discuss morally sensitive and often taboo issues like homosexuality, justice, class or even poverty. These days, when words like taboo and censorship stir a faint longing in the soul, when secrets aren’t worth keeping anymore, the novel has lost some of its utility. “Readers,” Parks suggests, “have become so canny about the way fiction works, so much has been written about it, that any intense work about sexuality, say, or race relations, will be understood willy-nilly as the writer’s reconstituting his or her personal involvement with the matter.” In fact, he goes on, it is these “disguising effects” of a story, the way certain preoccupations have been shifted from reality to fiction, say in the work of Philip Roth or Coetzee, which has become the main pleasure of reading certain authors.
The novel, then, once a mirror on society, evolved into an exploration of the self, the new individual, and became a screen or mask behind which the author hid his true predicament, his secrets, his true face. Parks wonders if in our new lawless cyber-reality, there is just no reason to hide anymore, “taboo after taboo has fallen away,” anything goes so to speak. The stock in trade of mainstream literary fiction, the disguise of plot and dynamic detail, dialogue and quiet filler, is of no use to anybody anymore. It has become a kind of kitsch. In another related blog piece, Parks nails his colours to the mast:
“My problem with the grand traditional novel—or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included—is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering. At once a palace built of words and a trajectory propelled by syntax, the self connects effortlessly with the past and launches bravely into the future. Challenged, perhaps thwarted by circumstance, it nevertheless survives, with its harvest of bittersweet consolation, and newly acquired knowledge.”
He’s spot on there. You wouldn’t teach this nonsense to a child. Life’s just not like that. Parks is suggesting that the frantic attempts to create meaning in a realist narrative directs the reader away from any sense of the present as anything more than a stage on the way to the future and those cool pools of “bittersweet consolation.” Parks, in this instance, is responding to Reality Hunger by David Shields, one of the more recent manifestos calling for a new kind of writing about reality that got a lot of people talking the death of the novel to death again. Shields gives the modern novel a hiding with complaints like the following:
“I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking.”
Shields is obviously bored by the novel and who could blame him? But it’s one thing to find the smoke and mirrors of the novel corny and stifling and another thing to publish a manifesto for a way forward. Shields’ big idea is a radical new form, a hybrid mix of collage and plagiarism, fiction and non-fiction. But is this actually new? Wasn’t collage and plagiarism the answer the Surrealists found in their campaign to discredit a reality they found suffocating? Think of Apollinaire’s game-changing poem, Lundi rue Christine, constructed out of fragments of overheard conversation in a café. Or Paul Eluard’s collaboration with Max Ernst who famously defined collage as the “systematic exploitation of the fortuitous or engineered encounter of two or more intrinsically incompatible realities… and the spark of poetry which leaps across the gap as these realities are brought together.”
The collage technique has been around for a long time. As has the struggle to develop and expand artistic forms as reality mutates around us. Questions around the death of the novel are mainly linked to a crisis not about reality but about the ways and means of representing reality. Parks and Shields and plenty of others are rightly fed up with the traditional furniture of the realist novel. The modernist answer was to turn away from that outside reality and look within—to go deeper into the self—and it gave us Joyce’s Night Town and Virginia Wolf’s injunction to “record the atoms (of experience) as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall.”
What is this reality that we seem to have so much trouble representing? And why does it always manage to slip our desperate nets? Slavoj Žižek, writing recently about the concept of Event, reminds us that the real may not be something we actually want to look at. Lacan called it the impossible, the monstrous. By asking how we go about framing an event, Žižek engages with the question of how we know when something has happened in the world, be it a counter-revolution, an uprising in a post office, or the act gratuit of an illicit kiss. An event is always more than the sum of its causes, Žižek writes, and is something that reverses the contingency of reality into a necessity. He uses the example of falling in love. Love is a cataclysm. Love is dangerous. It transforms the person from a state where love stops not being written to a state where it doesn’t stop being written, the reversal of the not-yet to the always-already. Love is the great upheaval and once you have met that person, that other, it is hard not to see it as a destiny, as necessary. This is the first great illusion; the source of the fantasies each will need to defend themselves against the potential devastation of reality.
The real is unbearable so it’s no wonder we have problems facing it. To say we hunger for reality may be missing the point altogether. Reality could be the last big taboo, to continue with Tim Parks’ word. When everything is permitted, nothing is desired, he seems to be suggesting. Taboo is “good for creativity.” Prohibitions are beneficial for art because for one thing they create the need for concealment, disguise, masks to get around the law. Thatcher was good for us, it says. Paisley was good for us. The best way to control drugs is to legalise them, it also says. Buried in this idea is the notion of sublimation.
Freud described sublimation as the transformation of base materials of desire into something with a higher social function. It is the essence of civilisation. The creation of art is our noblest defense mechanism. An author, for example, sublimates his own worst impulses into something morally acceptable like a book and then just as importantly, the reader enjoys some species of sublimation/catharsis in the act of reading from beginning to end? Of course if that man fails to find ways of sublimating his shadowy lusts into a publishable book, he may go out into the streets and cause havoc. What would Jean Genet have done if he hadn’t started writing – that dark act of treason he dreamed of? Would Derek Raymond have done something much worse than write, I Was Dora Suarez? If I write a novel about incest and satanism, am I confronting my own demons in a public way, somehow preventing myself from acting it out, and if you happen to read it, are you secretly facing yours, and do we all feel better as a result, calmer, safer, and keep to the rules?
The stuff that needs to be controlled, transformed, sublimated into art and all the other projects we fill our time with is the endless flow of desire. It shows up in lots of fairy stories. Take Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Red Shoes’. A poor young girl is given a pair of red shoes. Her stepmother, however, thinks they are inappropriate and locks them in a cupboard. A time comes when the old woman is on her deathbed. The young girl is invited to a ball. She takes the forbidden shoes out of the cupboard and goes to the ball. When she begins to dance, she can’t stop. The shoes won’t stop. They have a life of their own. They dance her out of the palace and into the dark woods. An angel curses her from the door of the church. She can’t get the shoes off her feet. Days and nights pass, and she must dance unceasingly. Eventually, the poor girl has to ask the local executioner to take his axe and cut off her feet.
That’s the terrible anarchic energy gushing under our feet. Parks and Shields and others seem to fear that the form of the novel is no longer any use in channeling and controlling that energy, or perhaps the implicit belief in sublimation is waning from our society. After all, the same energy which gives us Romeo and Juliet also brings us paedophile priests. Our reality has been traumatised by the new possibilities of the hyper-expressive digital realms as fundamentally as the process of industrialisation changed life in cities at the brink of the 20th century, and just as the artists back then had to push the novel to address this change, we have to do it now also.
For every Flaubert there’s a Melville. For every Ian McEwan there’s a James Kelman. There will always be writers who pour themselves into the form of the novel, intent on blowing the roof off the house rather than just rearranging the furniture. Anaïs Nin complained the novel had become a polished string of evasions, not about what people experience but what they are afraid to experience.
“Like the modern physicist the novelist of today should face the fact that this new psychological reality can be explored and dealt with only under the conditions of tremendously high atmospheric pressures, temperatures and speed, as well as in terms of new time-space dimensions for which the old containers represented by the traditional forms and conventions of the novel are completely inadequate and inappropriate.”
Plus ça change, mon semblable. In her sequence of novels, Cities of the Interior, Nin tried to confront this space-time dimension by creating a sense of physical movement within and across the books, which she envisaged turning in space like a mobile. Constructed out of her own diaries, Nin believed she could confront reality by exploring the limits of her own fantasies and even more crucially, her role in other people’s fantasies. In a world now swamped by fantasy free of any origin, any source or subject, you have to hold your fantasies up to the light to check for the watermark that confirms they are actually your own.