If you don’t have a purpose, pick one for yourself

The New Yorker‘s “Briefly Noted” book review section (behind a paywall, but check here if you’re curious) has a review Very Recent History that displays all the telltale signs of pointlessly plotless modern novels: adrift protagonists; problems with few or no important stakes; expecting the world to be automatically interesting, instead of you being interesting to the world; consumption for its own sake rather than for the sake of pleasure. Even the language of the review is stupid, saying that Very Recent History “serves to underscore the sense of trauma that is daily life in a late-capitalist moment.”

What? How do we know this is “a late capitalist moment?” Assuming capitalism as such dates to the 18th Century and, say, Adam Smith, and is the dominant organization of successful societies in 200 years, this is a “mid capitalist moment.” And there is little or no “sense of trauma” in “daily life” for most urban dwellers: If you want fucking trauma, try getting gassed in Syria, or AIDS in much of Africa, or live as one of hundreds of millions of people without electricity or running water in India. Get some fucking perspective people. Being laid off from a white-collar job is not the same as being shot by the regime’s uniformed thugs.

The other funny thing, as a friend mentioned in an e-mail, is that “no novelist who manages to write an entire book and get it mentioned in the major media is anything like those adrift protagonists; that’s someone with purpose.”

There’s a whole genre of these novels about people who behave stupidly in transparent ways. My favorite example is Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, because it helped crystallize the problem for me, though there are many others examples. It’s also not a badly written book. These kinds of novels can actually be fabulously well-written, and have all sorts of brilliant micro observations. Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children fits this designation. All those wonderful sentences about a bunch of boring fools leading unimportantly literary lives in New York. I wanted one of them to get a job as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan instead of debating about whether they should Follow Their Muse or sell out.

The Emperor’s Children is an example of the apparently growing number of people who have no direction or purpose in life and choose not to have one. Call it the Girls problem, which is not having real problems while simultaneously not trying anything and not knowing about anything.

About the TV show Girls: it has probably engendered more essays about it than viewers, but my fiancée and I watched the first couple episodes and the beginnings of a couple episodes after that, but it was too dumb to keep going: the characters were privileged morons. I wanted to climb in the TV and say, “Hey! There are real problems out there! People are starving in various places! Science is finding and doing all kinds of awesome stuff. Programs need to be written. There are sick people in hospitals and children who need education. Why don’t you all get real fucking jobs?”

I would love to see one of the girls on Girls get a job as an ER nurse or doctor. They’d learn a little about what’s fucking important. Or they could be working on democracy in Guinea. None of the characters in Girls appear to be learning how to paint, draw, write education grants, keep tropical fish, hack, solder, cook, sew… the list goes on. None seem to appreciate that SpaceX is sending rockets into space and is probably our best collective shot at visiting Mars in the next 40 years. Wow!

Whole industries are being shaken and rebuilt all around us (publishing, for example, by the colossus in Seattle).

Their collective response to this, however, is to continue to gaze lovingly at the lint gathered in their own navels, and to wonder why people aren’t beating a path to their door to offer them fame and fortune. Hell, they can’t even make the bad sex they’re sometimes having into a politically or intellectually interesting act, as someone like Catherine Millet or Toni Bentley can. They have no sense of the past. They have no sense beyond the most rudimentary knowledge of other cultures. They’re not trying to be an amazing novelist like Anne Patchett.

One response

  1. Pingback: Briefly noted: The Magician’s Land — Lev Grossman | The Story's Story

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