Human all Too inhuman/Humano, todo demasiado inhumano

Ahora que Jonathan Franzen regresó a los escenarios con su novela Freedom, me di a la tarea de rescatar un artículo hace 10 años que escribió James Wood sobre la nueva narrativa en US y su realismo histérico o hysterical realism.

Human, All Too Inhuman

The smallness of the “big” novel.

A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the “big, ambitious novel.” Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason & DixonUnderworld,Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges. A landscape is disclosed–lively and varied and brightly marked, but riven by dead gullies.
The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence–as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned. If, say, a character is introduced in London, call him Toby Awknotuby (that is, ” To be or not to be”–ha!) then we will be swiftly told that he has a twin in Delhi (called Boyt, which is an anagram of Toby, of course), who, like Toby, has the same very curious genital deformation, and that their mother belongs to a religious cult based, oddly enough, in the Orkney Islands, and that their father (who was born at the exact second that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima) has been a Hell’s Angel for the last thirteen years (but a very curious Hell’s Angels group it is, devoted only to the fanatical study of late Wordsworth), and that Toby’s mad left-wing aunt was curiously struck dumb when Mrs. Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979 and has not spoken a word since. And all this, over many pages, before poor Toby Awknotuby has done a thing, or thought a thought!

Is this a caricature, really? Recent novels–veritable relics of St. Vitus–by Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace, and others, have featured a great rock musician who, when born, began immediately to play air guitar in his crib (Rushdie); a talking dog, a mechanical duck, a giant octagonal cheese, and two clocks having a conversation (Pynchon); a nun called Sister Edgar who is obsessed with germs and who may be a reincarnation of J. Edgar Hoover, and a conceptual artist painting retired B-52 bombers in the New Mexico desert (DeLillo); a terrorist group devoted to the liberation of Quebec called the Wheelchair Assassins, and a film so compelling that anyone who sees it dies (Foster Wallace). Zadie Smith’s novel features, among other things: a terrorist Islamic group based in North London with a silly acronym (kevin), an animal-rights group called fate, a Jewish scientist who is genetically engineering a mouse, a woman born during an earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1907; a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses who think that the world is ending on December 31, 1992; and twins, one in Bangladesh and one in London, who both break their noses at about the same time.

This is not magical realism. It is hysterical realism. Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked. Appropriately, then, objections are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality–the usual charge against botched realism–but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.

One is reminded of Kierkegaard’s remark that travel is the way to avoid despair. For all these books share a bonhomous, punning, lively serenity of spirit. Their mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish. Indeed, Underworld, the darkest of these books, carries within itself, in its calm profusion of characters and plots, its flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page, a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added. There are many enemies, seen and unseen, in Underworld, but silence is not one of them.

The optimism of all this “vitality” is shared by many readers, apparently. Again and again, one sees books such as these praised for being cabinets of wonders. Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation. The mere existence of a giant cheese or a cloned mouse or several different earthquakes in a novel is seen as meaningful or wonderful, evidence of great imaginative powers. And this is because too often these features are mistaken for scenes, as if they constituted the movement or the toil or the pressure of the novel, rather than taken for what they are–props of the imagination, meaning’s toys. The existence of vitality is mistaken for the drama of vitality.

What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character. Stories, after all, are generated by human beings, and it might be said that these recent novels are full of inhuman stories, whereby that phrase is precisely an oxymoron, an impossibility, a wanting it both ways. By and large, these are not stories that could never happen (as, say, a thriller is often something that could never happen); rather, they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them. They are not stories in which people defy the laws of physics (obviously, one could be born in an earthquake); they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion. This is what Aristotle means when he says that in storytelling “a convincing impossibility” (say, a man levitating) is always preferable to “an unconvincing possibility” (say, the possibility that a fundamentalist group in London would continue to call itself kevin). And what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness. One cult is convincing; three cults are not.

Novels, after all, turn out to be delicate structures, in which one story judges the viability, the actuality, of another. Yet it is the relatedness of these stories that their writers seem most to cherish, and to propose as an absolute value. An endless web is all they need for meaning. Each of these novels is excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)

Por James Wood

Para leer el artículo completo ir a este enlace de The New Republic

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