24 November 2010

Myths of the Near Future

I wasn’t aware that it was time for another edition of the Chicago Manual, already. The Believer co-founder/contributor Ed Park, who reviews the thing by way of a Ballardian exercise of treating reference material as if it were a narrative. Though I believe the actual pay-off is (for once) in the comments.

Speaking of J.G. Ballard, the following quite from the author turned up in an article this past weekend in the Guardian:

"We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass-merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel."

It appeared in a post in which Guardian contributor Damien Walter was arguing for the continued relevance of science fiction as a contemporary literary genre. He writes:

Looking at the television screen, and the surrounding mediasphere, it seems difficult to deny that much of what might once have been real has been displaced by fiction. Fictional conflicts stand at the heart of dramas that help us ignore the truth. [...]

For the last few centuries the realist novel has done little more than find ever more obsessive ways to reflect back at us the comforting fictions we accept as reality, making the contemporary literary novelist merely a second idiot, retelling the tale the first idiot already told. Realist fiction's unquestioning acceptance of modern life makes it difficult for the contemporary literary novel to find anything resembling the truth when it tackles issues of poverty, race, gender, politics, society or philosophy. The easy cop-out of post-modernist relativism beckons.

That last dismissive bit about "post-modernism" is a little too pat, begs for boocoo qualification. Still, I found it intriguing; especially in light of the nascent hubbub about "reality hunger." Right right, we know already: The death of the novel, the obsolescence of same in any "Great American…" context, the oh-so-quaint conceit of thinking that such a thing is even still possible in this pluralistically-minded day & age, and the continued quest for relevant and inclusive narratives in an age of advanced cultural fragmentation and diffusion. All sorts of questions and debates spring up around the notions that Walter insists are imperative and still viable in contempo lit.

But: An "unquestioning acceptance of modern life"? Well, sure…if the wheel was an extension of the foot, just as (some certain cyber-gaga sorts once proclaimed) the internet is an extension of our own synapses or whatever, how can any of the nuances and minutiae of said modern life be encompassed by something so conventional and retrograde as a novel? As if writers of the recent gen haven't grappled with exactly this conundrum. The genre/not-genre of "Hysterical Realism" comes to mind. More specifically, David Foster Wallace’s honkingly hefty and ambitious Infinite Jest, what with all its myriad endnotes, its byzantine and obsessive-compulsive navigations of product descriptions and the chemical ingredients of psychotropic drugs, and a future involving Subsidized Time and absurdist geo-political alliances that includes border disputes carried out with catapulted garbage, and etc. etc.

And along with the idea of Hysterical Realism comes critic James Wood’s reputed gripe, his dismissal that it amounts to nothing more than an abortive literary mode that "knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being." Huh. Funny, considering that just a few years before Wood’s verdict, the following passing observation turned up somewhere in Wallace’s Infinite Jest:

"Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he's devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It's hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency."

Admittedly, there's a lot of irony in that last sentence; but perhaps not nearly so much irony as exists between Wood's remark and Wallace's offhand observation.

Only connect, as the maxim had it. Right. But how to do so or retain the ability to do so in contemporary Western society; amid the proliferation of new objects, of new pathologies and addictions, of endless distractions and displacements? Ultimately, that’s what Wallace aimed to address with Infinite Jest. And by his efforts, he managed to create a work that was not only profoundly sad, but was also at turns deeply, viscerally hilarious.

Which is one bothersome thing (among many) about Walter’s comments above. Naive and sweepingly over-simplistic, they beg the questions: Whose science fiction? Whose post-modernism? Whose version of "truth"? Relativism, like irony, often serves as a method of distantiation. Yet both, when properly employed or engaged, provide a potent means of critique against "a world ruled by fictions of every kind." Working through to work beyond. Hasn’t that been the enterprise of the whole literary impulse from the beginning?

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