More on How Fiction Works and someone else’s review doesn’t

In The Australian, a nominal review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works is really a discussion of Wood’s work more generally. It also shows why I shirked writing a deep review of How Fiction Works, as I I have more than a few quibbles:

If Wood doesn’t “get” the overall trick of an author’s writing he tends to dismiss it. This was most evident in his notorious Guardian review (reworked in The Irresponsible Self) of “hysterical realism”, a term Wood has coined to sum up the work of a whole slew of contemporary novelists that includes Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon.

Is this an issue of not “getting” the works, or of getting them too well and not liking or caring for what they represent? To me, DeLillo and Pynchon in particular have long been overrated. I remember trying to read them in late school and early college and thinking, “why are these awful writers so highly praised?” At the time I didn’t realize that they were a reaction against earlier literary trends and that they were trying to be stylistically unusual merely for the sake of being stylistically unusual, or for obscure philosophical points without writing actual philosophy. Paul Graham seems to have had a similar experience with actual philosophy. Wood gets this, and probably better than I do, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed the overpraised and under-talented; one thing I very much appreciate about A Reader’s Manifesto is its willingness to engage with writing, rather than politics surrounding writing, or whatever propelled DeLillo to fame.

To return to the review:

While another critic might see the impulse towards jam-packed, baroquely hyperreal novels as a legitimate and thoughtful, albeit varyingly skilful, response to our postmodern world (a mimetic reflection of the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication, say, or an attempt to “wake up” a form whose traditional gestures are now the cliched staples of Hollywood cinema) […]

The problem is that these techniques aren’t mimetic: in trying to mimic the supposed techniques that they implicitly criticize, they don’t reflect information, but chaos; they aren’t hyperreal, but fake. And I’m not convinced modern life is so different in terms of “the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication.” Information isn’t indiscriminate: I still choose what to read and what to watch most of the time; if I’m exposed to ads, it’s because I choose to be. In some essays, Umberto Eco discusses how he sees ideas and battles from the Middle Ages underlying much of everyday life, and the more I read, the more I tend to trace the lineage of intellectual and personal ideas backwards through time. Although our technological and physical world has changed enormously in the last two hundred years, I’m not sure the purposes to which we put technology and power (conquest, sex, etc.) has much. That isn’t to say literary style hasn’t evolved, as it obviously has, and my preference tends toward novels written after 1900. Ideas have shifted and evolved too. Still, techniques used by modern authors like the hyperrealists just because they can be used doesn’t make them an improvement. Furthermore, not all of Wood’s loves are mine—I just finished Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and wouldn’t have if I didn’t need to. But I have seldom read a stronger argument for the capital-N Novel than I have in How Fiction Works, and even when I sometimes don’t find Wood persuasive, the power of his argument and depth of his reading always compels me to think more clearly and deeply about my own positions and thoughts.

More on How Fiction Works and someone else's review doesn't

In The Australian, a nominal review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works is really a discussion of Wood’s work more generally. It also shows why I shirked writing a deep review of How Fiction Works, as I I have more than a few quibbles:

If Wood doesn’t “get” the overall trick of an author’s writing he tends to dismiss it. This was most evident in his notorious Guardian review (reworked in The Irresponsible Self) of “hysterical realism”, a term Wood has coined to sum up the work of a whole slew of contemporary novelists that includes Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon.

Is this an issue of not “getting” the works, or of getting them too well and not liking or caring for what they represent? To me, DeLillo and Pynchon in particular have long been overrated. I remember trying to read them in late school and early college and thinking, “why are these awful writers so highly praised?” At the time I didn’t realize that they were a reaction against earlier literary trends and that they were trying to be stylistically unusual merely for the sake of being stylistically unusual, or for obscure philosophical points without writing actual philosophy. Paul Graham seems to have had a similar experience with actual philosophy. Wood gets this, and probably better than I do, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed the overpraised and under-talented; one thing I very much appreciate about A Reader’s Manifesto is its willingness to engage with writing, rather than politics surrounding writing, or whatever propelled DeLillo to fame.

To return to the review:

While another critic might see the impulse towards jam-packed, baroquely hyperreal novels as a legitimate and thoughtful, albeit varyingly skilful, response to our postmodern world (a mimetic reflection of the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication, say, or an attempt to “wake up” a form whose traditional gestures are now the cliched staples of Hollywood cinema) […]

The problem is that these techniques aren’t mimetic: in trying to mimic the supposed techniques that they implicitly criticize, they don’t reflect information, but chaos; they aren’t hyperreal, but fake. And I’m not convinced modern life is so different in terms of “the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication.” Information isn’t indiscriminate: I still choose what to read and what to watch most of the time; if I’m exposed to ads, it’s because I choose to be. In some essays, Umberto Eco discusses how he sees ideas and battles from the Middle Ages underlying much of everyday life, and the more I read, the more I tend to trace the lineage of intellectual and personal ideas backwards through time. Although our technological and physical world has changed enormously in the last two hundred years, I’m not sure the purposes to which we put technology and power (conquest, sex, etc.) has much. That isn’t to say literary style hasn’t evolved, as it obviously has, and my preference tends toward novels written after 1900. Ideas have shifted and evolved too. Still, techniques used by modern authors like the hyperrealists just because they can be used doesn’t make them an improvement. Furthermore, not all of Wood’s loves are mine—I just finished Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and wouldn’t have if I didn’t need to. But I have seldom read a stronger argument for the capital-N Novel than I have in How Fiction Works, and even when I sometimes don’t find Wood persuasive, the power of his argument and depth of his reading always compels me to think more clearly and deeply about my own positions and thoughts.

The Enchantress of Florence — Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence disappoints; Seldom has so great an ability to describe and so much seething talent been put to so little use as in this novel, where numerous sumptuous descriptions—though not so numerous or so skillful as Umberto Eco’s in Foucault’s Pendulum—add up to little more than yammering.

Take this artful idea, for example:

Travel was pointless. It removed you from the place in which you had a meaning, and to which you gave meaning in return by dedicating your life to it, and it spirited you away into fairylands where you were, and looked, frankly absurd.

Given that Jodha, who exists only in the mind of the king, says this, it works on multiple levels: she’s removed from the place where she would have meaning, and yet if she were removed from the emperor’s mind she’d have none because she wouldn’t exist—a neat paradoxical situation that nonetheless gets old a page later, when she says:

Now that the act of creation was complete she was free to be the person he had created, free, as everyone was, within the bounds of what it was in their nature to be and do.

That’s nice, but we’ve gone through pages and pages of meditation on what it means to be a creator and creative sort, and still more verbal games that become tiresome, especially with the double use of the word “free” in a situation that just doesn’t quite seem to merit it, even if we’re supposed to get the irony of her being “free” when by definition she can’t be free of his mind. Granted, she might eventually turn out to be a real person—this is magical realism, and I quit halfway after the fiftieth time I wondered, “What’s the point?”—but from here Jodha doesn’t go far.

Maybe there are more clever resonances among parts of the novel; the king thinks “No Man was ever free,” and yet the woman inside his head thinks she is free. Rushdie is striving for the intricate correspondence of Nabokov, but he doesn’t get there: the voice isn’t as firmly anchored to the characters as Nabokov in Pnin or Lolita, the characters are never quite so alive, and The Enchantress of Florence lacks that visceral sense of reality that a historical novel like Eco’s The Name of the Rose has. Adso of Melk sounds believable as a fourteenth century monk, immersed in the biblical culture that bound the thin educated class together at the time; in The Enchantress of Florence, we hear what could be a literary theorist natter, “They, too, saw their selves as multiple, one self that was the father of their children, another that was their parents’ child; they knew themselves to be different with their employers than they were at home with their lives—in short, they were bags of selves, bursting with plurality, just as he was.” What? Are we discussing modern workplace or family or feminist politics? And isn’t it obvious that the relationship one feels toward parents versus children is different? One could just as easily say, “You use different registers at work than you do at home.” Done. But I’m not sure Mughal kings were as concerned with this issue as middle-aged American accountants.

Yes, I understand what Rushdie shot for—Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron—except told through a post-modern, winking lens—and yet it doesn’t come together. Quotes from the novel don’t really show why, as much of the writing itself is good, but the plot at best meanders, and I feel like it shows utter dedication to the art of, say, cataloging obscure 80’s pop bands. Sure, you can, but should you? And does it matter? You can just imagine Rushdie pondering all the elements—mystical emperors, far off cities, narrative games, clever commentary on the point of myth versus legend—and all of them seeming so good and right. Then why did this omelette turn out so poorly when all the ingredients appeared so wonderful? It’s a question that, as I ponder, I can’t answer well.

The Enchantress of Florence comes with a bibliography, but this bit of scholastic detritus shows that you can study a period without living it. Contrast again The Enchantress of Florence with The Name of the Rose; the writer’s canard goes, “Write what you know,” and it’s often misinterpreted to mean that you should write autobiographically or something to that effect, but Eco has so long been immersed in the Middle Ages that he’s achieved the true writer’s alchemy and been able to live it as very few works of art do. By the same token, the marvelous TV show Friday Night Lights accomplishes the same effect with modern American high schools as few books or shows do; Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, despite its flaws, accomplished for boarding schools; and though many other novels try, they more often than not fail. To be sure, parts of Friday Night Lights, book and show, are no doubt exaggerated, just like Prep. One cannot fully recreated the Middle Ages in a novel, even one so wonderful as The Name of the Rose. Yet they have the verisimilitude in form and content that The Enchantress of Florence lacks. Eco knows the Middle Ages, Neal Stephenson knows hacker culture, and J.R.R. Tolkien knew Middle-earth better than I know Seattle. Alas: I’m not sure Rushdie knows the Moghul empire, the concerns of its people, and the age in which they lived. If he does, he didn’t prove it, and even if he did prove it, I’m sure that could’ve saved The Enchantress of Florence.

 


 

Rushdie visited Seattle recently, where he talked a little bit about The Enchantress of Florence and a lot about politics, both of the famous fatwah against him and the U.S. This was in response to questions, but given how little he spoke about his work and how little I thought of the book, I don’t have anything to write about that hasn’t been written about in more depth elsewhere. Search Google for his name, and you can’t help finding more concerning politics than books.

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