James Wood wrote a typically fascinating piece to Nigel Beale defending “lifeness,” or sophisticated realism. As mentioned in my recent link post, it’s worth reading in full. I have to quote at length to set up my response:
It is perfectly possible to agree with Roland Barthes that realism is a set of codes and conventions (for all writing is a set of such codes, after all) and still try to defend that element in fiction — what I call “lifeness” — that eludes the nerveless grip of code. This is a defence both of that evanescence called ‘reality’ and of the artifice that makes it — and makes it up — and there is no contradiction in this doubleness: we read fiction with two eyes, as it were, one world-directed and one text-directed.
The review I just wrote about Joseph O’Neill’s superb novel,”Netherland,” in “The New Yorker,” praises the novel both for its deep and wise interest in life and lives, and for its high degree of artifice and style. That doubleness is entirely in keeping with my attacks on people like Tom Wolfe, John Irving, the more formulaic elements of John Updike, and so on, and in keeping with my praise, in essays and reviews, of writers like Cormac McCarthy (when he is not trying to write a genre thriller like “No Country for Old Men”), Saul Bellow, Roberto Bolano, Muriel Spark, Jose Saramago, W.G. Sebald, Philip Roth, Alan Hollinghurst, Milan Kundera, Norman Rush, V.S. Naipaul, Edward P. Jones, Michel Houellebecq, Anne Enright, David Means, Peter Carey, J.M. Coetzee, Bohumil Hrabal, Harold Brodkey (I was an early and pretty isolated English champion of Brodkey’s), not to mention earlier writers like Henry Green, Italo Svevo, Giovanni Verga, Knut Hamsun, J.F. Powers, and many others.
(Link added by me).
I see this in part as a facet of the long-running debate between whether one should understand the exterior world as reflective of the interior or whether the interior is perpetually hidden and most revealed through its own, psychological terms. This tension manifests itself in literary periods: the exterior world was more popular in the 18th Century with writers like Pope and Swift, and naturally lends itself to satire, while the Romantics brought acute focus back to the interior world through their poetry, while many of the modernists tried to reflect this shift to the inside through the shape of their prose itself. Some contemporary novelists think they’re doing one when they’re actually doing the other; although I hadn’t realized this at the time I wrote my review, it’s a malady Bridge of Sighs suffers from. And the greatest novels can go one way (Ulysses, I would argue, is radically interior) or find a middle path, as I think Bellow often does, but even he often veers interior, as in Henderson and Herzog, as opposed to the exterior-focused world of The Adventures of Augie March; I’m not sure where Ravelstein fits, but I take that subject up again later.
To be sure, some of these generalizations are overly broad, as they almost must be when describing grant literary trends. But some writers—like Tom Wolfe—can subvert the code they appear to be hewing to, and at his best in The Bonfire of the Vanities Wolfe accomplishes this and is a more sophisticated and better writer than many critics assume through his use of examining how the exterior reflects the interior. Being just slightly off makes him misfire completely: I Am Charlotte Simmons is a bad novel that parodies itself, and Wolfe’s symbolic and social purposes are utterly transparent, some of his details are wrong, and the whole effect falls apart. Wolfe has more lifeness than Wood credits him with, though perhaps not so much as some of the later writers on his list.
One way of avoiding the interior and exterior problem is to have a narrator observing someone else, thus allowing one to see the interiority of the narrator and the exteriority of the person being observed. I want to write a dissertation on what I call the nominal object or nominal subject, in which you have a first-person narrator observing another person who is the nominal object or subject of the story: think Ishmael and Ahab in Moby Dick, Carraway and Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, or Jack Burden and Willie Stark in All the King’s Men. All three novels exhibit what I think Wood means by “lifeness,” and although they don’t achieve exclusively that effect through this technique, it can, when used well, give a sense of interiority from the narrator and exteriority in the object. Ravelstein has the same technique, alone as far as I know in Bellow’s novels.
Which is right, the interior or exterior focus? I haven’t the slightest idea and suspect the answer is “neither,” but the debate’s terms are so often manifested in specific examples but not often stated in more general form. To me, novels that elude codes, ideologies, formulas, and other kinds of algorithmic writing—the ones that are truly novel—are the ones most worth reading, provided that they don’t try to evade codes merely to evade codes, but rather as a way of advancing the story, expanding our understanding of reality, and the like. This is the distinction I draw between someone like Bellow and someone like Alain Robbe-Grillet, who seemed interested in difference only for the sake of being different.