‘Maybe in 50 years there won’t be novels’

Claire Messud: ‘Maybe in 50 years there won’t be novels:’ As her fifth novel is published, the American writer warns that shrinking attention spans could prove the death of long fiction” makes an interesting point that is definitely plausible and may also be correct. Still, while average attention spans may be shrinking, elite attention spans may be as long as they ever were—they have to be to do good work. The people who make Twitter, Facebook, and SnapChat need intense concentration to do the work they do (everyone ought to at least attempt a programming class, if for no other reason than to understand the kind of mental effort it entails). If we’re going to keep the lights on, the Internet working at all, and the world running, we need to be able to concentrate long enough to really understand a topic deeply.

As fewer people can do this, the value of doing it rises. My own work as a grant writer depends on concentration; part of the reason we have a business is because most people can’t concentrate long enough to learn to write well and then apply that learning to grant applications. As I wrote in 2012, “Grant writing is long-form, not fragmentary.” Cal Newport makes a similar point, although not about grant writing, in Deep Work.

The contemporary tension between an attention-addled majority and a deep-working minority fuels Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem. It’s not the most readable of novels because the made-up vocabulary of the future is so grating. The idea is a reasonable one (our present vocabulary is different from the past’s vocabulary, so won’t the same be true of the future?), but the novel also shows the technical problems that attempting to implement that idea entail. I wonder if Messud has read Anathem.

Anyway, to return to Messud, I suspect this is true: “That we can’t fathom other people, or ourselves, is the engine of fiction” and as long as it remains true there will be an appetite for novels among at least some people.

By the way, I’ve started a couple of Messud’s books and never cottoned to them. Maybe the flaw is mine.

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.

Lush Life and Richard Price in Seattle

Richard Price’s Lush Life is a study in power—who has it, who doesn’t, who is trying to get it—and dignity, which, sooner or later, almost every character loses. Those who have power and dignity in one sphere, as detective Matty Clark mostly does in the police world, lose it in another, as Matty does at home. He is uncomfortably close to a stock genre detective, but the lush language of Lush Life gives Matty others such life that they are people, and people who reflect their social and media environment.

Lush Life begins not with a murder but with the “Quality of Life Task Force,” a group of four white cops who are lowering, not raising, the quality of life. The idiotic speculation of one is juxtaposed with an image representing one of the book’s central concerns:

“Who the fuck puts a Howard Johnson’s down here?” Scharf gestures to the seedy-looking chain hotel, its neighbors an ancient knishery and a Seventh-Day Adventist church whose aluminum cross is superimposed over a stone-carved Star of David. “What was the thinking behind that.”

Groups overlap in Price’s Lower East Side, with the influence of the earlier group never fully erased, just as the Star of David is still faintly visible. People linger, which Price spoke about when he visited Seattle in March, saying that there are “six groups of people who don’t realize they’re not there anymore.” Moreover, as he says, “nobody knows anybody, nobody sees anything,” especially relating to crime, which leads to the perceived necessity of the Quality of Life Task Force and the real necessity of detectives like Matty.

The intersection of two particular groups leads murder, one group being the relatively wealthy suburban kids—I think of them as kids though one, Eric Cash, is a 35 waiter and would-be screenwriter—who move back to the areas their grant parents fled and provide the victim. The other group is the poor urban kids who might have provided the perpetrators. None come off well. Nor do their parents, who range from uninterested in actively hostile. The murder of Isaac Marcus, for example, inspires his divorced parents to shack up again in a hotel, and when Matty arrives afterward and opens a curtain, “both of them staring at him with the unself-consciousness of animals, with unblinking pie-eyed shock.” But are they in shock at the light, Matty, themselves, or the situation? I’m not sure, which is part of the novel’s beauty.

Ambiguity is everywhere, as characters hope and dream of higher places. Eric is a friend, loosely defined, of Isaac Marcus, his desire to get into the movies is a much lighter version of Sean Touhey from Clockers. Lush Life in general is a better, subtler, richer version of Clockers, which is a tremendous compliment, for Clockers itself is a strong novel. But Lush Life goes beyond it, artistically and socially. Where Clockers is all cops and robbers, Lush Life encompasses everyone from the rich kids and the nominally upper echelons of society to the street dregs. It captures the former better than, say, Claire Messud’s good if indulgent The Emperor’s Children, which also focuses on them, and the latter with the skill Price has already established. You see a fantastic collision on page 92, when Eric tries to describe his work, of which he is vaguely ashamed, especially in the face of the skeptical cops. And with good reason: Matty belittles him, the scene is so effective I a) hesitate to quote it and yet b) want to so badly*. The scene works so well because you know Matty’s description is what Eric thinks of himself if he’s being intellectually honest.

To the extent there are novelistic rules about plot, characterization, movement, motion, and the like, I don’t think Price breaks them—he simply wields novelistic conventions better than almost anyone else and uses his talent on language itself. One dangerous thing about writing a long post and then leaving it till much later for proofreading is that you never know when James Wood is going to come along and preempt you. But his discussion of Price’s dialog is worth reading, and I note that he also found the excruciating interrogation scene and quoted the same scene. Wood focuses on the dialog, but the brilliant descriptions and contrasts also help:

Despite its stark opulence, the place was the size of a shoe box, with barely a foot clearance between that huge bed and the three-sided terrace, which offered an imperial overview of the area: a sea of cramped and huddled walk-ups and century-old elementary schools, the only structures out there aspiring to any kind of height the randomly sprouting bright yellow Tyvek-wrapped multistory add-ons, and farther out, superimposed against the river, the housing projects and union-built co-ops that flanked the east side of this grubby vista like siege towers.

All that in one endlessly rolling sentence: by the time you’re at the end, you’ve forgiven him for using the shoebox cliché. Notice the missing verb between “height” and “the:” but it’s okay, the verb would only interrupt the flow of the speech, and I hadn’t realized its absence until after I quoted it here. The sentence tells you how the landscape reflects the people, with the age of it providing a backdrop of substance in lives that often seem to lack it.

Imperfections in Lush Lifeare minor: Tristan is flat, which is perhaps appropriate given his youth and the cruel environment in which he lives. Some allusions are improbable; would Eric or the third-person narrator mention the dancing of Tevye? Maybe, but despite Eric being Jewish I’m skeptical. Two pages later, though, and Price is hitting the high notes again, hiding and eliding and showing: “Seated with Minette on the front steps of the now deserted Langenshield, Matty went through the motions of rattling off a cursory progress report, omitting, of course, the continuing press gag, the scuttled seventh-day recanvass, and the unreturned phone calls.” We get a picture of the bureaucracy, are reminded of the plot, and learn about Matty in his role of cop in one swift, seamless recap; a page later, Matty’s lack of enthusiasm about his children is obvious: “He said, ‘Yeah,’ but Minette read the tell, searched his eyes for what he wasn’t saying.” As previously mentioned, Matty does fit the template of emotionally wounded but dedicated cop too well, just as his sidekick, Yolanda, is too close a fit to the wisecracking assistant, but these are things only recognized afterwards, as I discovered that the characters lead lives of what appear to be squalor from the outside. But Lush Life gives the sense that maybe their lives are redeemed by moments of happiness or small success. As the conflicts between cultural and social classes, law and desire, and power and language play out, Lush Life brought me along like a literary but streetsmart guide. I mentioned how few novels have moved me recently, and it’s a pleasure to find one that does so with such panache and skill.

The crowd at his reading, or at least the verbal part of it, seemed less interested in discussing the novel itself and the aforementioned panache and skill than the Lower East Side. A number of older transported New Yorkers came to talk, apparently, about geography and places.

But Price talked about ideas, too—about the residents who don’t want to complain too much because they’re immigrants, the families who came to the Lower East Side as immigrants and fled as soon as possible, and the ones now going back because of the real estate costs elsewhere in New York. One thing Price avoids is The Wonderful Past, as he said the Lower East Side “has always been a hellhole,” and sentimentality about it is only useful for the preservationists and such. One ironic point Price made is that a tenement museum exists not far from actual tenements, which I can believe.

I asked about the connection between Tom Wolfe, whose The Bonfire of the Vanities bears many similarities to Lush Life, and his own work. Price thought I referred to “Stalking the Billion-footed Beast” as mentioned here, but I said I meant that or Wolfe’s fiction. Price said it wasn’t explicitly on his mind but that Tom Wolfe had a point with his essay, and that there’s a whole world out there and you’re not obligated to make yourself its center. Instead of searching one’s interior, Price said “you can find yourself by getting lost,” and that’s been doing so for 15 years by following his gut wherever it takes him.

I got the impression that Price doesn’t really like Wolfe but respects him; in Lush Life, Price is a more consciously literary version of Elmore Leonard, which is a very good thing. Regardless of literary influences, however, Price has written as good a book as I’ve read recently and one that will, I imagine, prove even more resilient than Clockers.

* Okay, I can’t resist, but you’ve been warned that I recommend you skip it so the passage blows you away in the context. Matty tells Eric: “I have listened to your shit in here all day. You are a self-centered, self-pitying, cowardly, envious, resentful, failed-ass career waiter. That’s your everyday jacket. Now, add to that a gun and a gutful of vodka? I don’t believe that shooting last night was an accident. I think you were a walking time bomb and last night you finally went off.”

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