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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Improbability of the Novel

If you take  the last few big novels that have come out and put them along side the other novels that summed up our era then you find they are hopelessly myopic. Jonathan Franzens Freedom gave us a big lazy liberal family slowly disintegrating under the zeitgeist of modern times. But it was limited because it was a wealthy liberal family much like the kind I came from. Except we were not wealthy. But I did recognize the characters much like I recognize the characters in a John Updike novel. They are people I am comfortable with but they are  individuals who are already anachronistic by the time the novel hits the shelves.

If we fast forward to the next big novel of the season then we find Harbach's The Art of Fielding. I am not putting the two in the same category but it is publishing's big foot forward that tells us to wake up and read this book. So I did and I had much the same reaction. Very entertaining novel with a story to tell but no real relevancy to today. And maybe that is asking too much of the novel. Maybe the very speed of today with its instantaneous reckoning puts the novel squarely in the category of telling a very good story but that is about it.

Not that is new thought. Gore Vidal and others sung the death song of the novel thirty years ago with the advent of television and film and of course the Internet. But one does yearn for a novel to sum up our time. You may read  Eugnides The Marriage Plot and come away with the same thought. A good story but not about out time. Of course you can extrapolate our time through the novelists treatment of his characters but it is a bit like stretching out a well chewed piece of gum. There is just no flavor left.

So we fall back to thinking that maybe the the improbability of the novel has hit it's new function. To entertain and enlighten a bit but not really grapple with today. The Great Gatsby was not a big seller in its day and maybe that is the problem. Without the big foot of publishing's approval the novelist is helpless to get his word out. And novels that take on society can be a bit depressing and who wants to read that? So you have your dilemma as the  novelist: write a really entertaining book or starve and write something that comes to grip with the times we live in.

There are many out there who do write about our time. They are busy starving and surviving and collecting rejection letters. Occasionally a few do get through, like Mcinerney's Bright Lights Big City did in the eighties. But that is a galaxy from a long time ago and it is curious that Jonathan Franzen seems to be our only oracle now. Pity he can only cover one family at at time.

Books by William Hazelgrove