I actually learned nothing from assembling my list of all of the novels that I really love

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Anyone who hasn’t read this ought to read it. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I have no idea why it’s fallen out of fashion.

I’ve spend several days looking at the list that I put together a few days ago. And as far as I can tell, I’ve basically learned nothing.

I can tell because I actually had an epiphany about my own work the other day. Which is that the works of mine that I enjoy are the ones in which the character strongly wants something and takes an active role in pursuing it: they’re books where the inciting event and subsequent plot complications are mostly things that the character does. Basically, they’re stories in which the character is just as much antagonist as protagonist.

Now, that sounds like a no-brainer, but many of my favorite books are actually not like that. For instance, take Revolutionary Road. Nothing happens in the book. It’s all about this couple wishing they could break free from suburbia and run off to France, but they do basically nothing to further that goal. Or in Buddenbrooks, everything happens in a very stately fashion. The family’s rise and fall has little to do with anyone’s particular talents: it’s all a matter of the operation of fate, and the pleasure of the book comes from watching the operation of different personalities within this milieu. Or take The Privileges. People do things in that novel, but nothing really matters. In fact, that’s a novel that tricks you, because you expect dramatic things to happen. For instance, at one point the husband gets involved in this embezzlement scheme. But it actually works out fine. The novel just skips ahead a few years and he’s suddenly extremely wealthy. That book is more about the experience of living. It’s about what it’s like to exist in these moments. Which is why the most beautiful part of it is the beginning, when this young couple are getting married in hot and sticky and somewhat unpleasant circumstances, and even though you know they’re not comfortable, you can also feel the majesty of the moment. Or what about Things Fall Apart. That’s a novel whose main character is completely satisfied with his life until the village  oracle decrees that his son needs to die. Or let’s take The Magicians. The book is basically about how Quentin gets lots of wonderful things, but is perpetually dissatisfied and basically has zero idea about what will make him happy.

And all of those books are excellent! They’re some of the best books I’ve ever read!

But they’re not the kind of books that I enjoy writing.

Instead, I prefer to write books with extremely active protagonists. There, my model would be something more like Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which is a novel about two working-class German people who’re sort of cruising along and laying low during the Third Reich, but then suddenly snap (when their son dies) and decide that they’re going to work to overthrow Hitler. Or House of Mirth, where Lily is perpetually given all these wonderful opportunities, but goes out of her way to disdain them. Another example is The Haunting of Hill House, where the action is driven, in my mind, by the way that Eleanor becomes positively obsessed with her fellow Hill House inmate Theodora. Oh, or in Main Street, where Carol Kennicott is living in a perfectly fine town and has a perfectly good husband, but mucks everything up with her constant efforts to improve and civilize the people around here.

That’s the kind of book that I want to write.

Really, it’s not even a question of want. I can’t be satisfied with a work in progress if the protagonist doesn’t drive the plot in that manner. Frequently, that means that my protagonists are either comical or somewhat on the more unpleasant side. Because there’s something unpleasant about a person who just won’t let things rest. There’s something unpleasant about someone who wants something so much that they’re willing to upset a perfectly good situation in order to get it. For instance, the couple in Every Man Dies Alone are embarking upon a praiseworthy course of action, but the way they do it is so foolish and ineffective that you can’t help but feel contempt for them. Or in House of Mirth, you just want to shout at Lily to marry one of these fucking guys already. Carol Kennicott, as well, is a character who reveals an ugly side in the readers of the book. We all think, just like her, that we’re superior to the plebes around us. And we’re all led, by that superiority, to engage in overbearing and arrogant behavior.

In many ways, it’s easier to write a more passive story. For instance, this is not the classic science fiction and fantasy story. In most SF/F, you have a character who is called upon to solve a problem. Luke is told to deliver the message to Obi-Wan. Frodo is told to destroy the ring. They’re given assurance that what they’re doing is important and necessary. And, furthermore, there’s really no turning back point. Once they’re committed to the adventure, all they need to do is struggle to win. Whereas Carol Kennicott’s story is very different. She takes this cause upon herself. And she’s constantly given the chance to back down, but she insists on digging her hole deeper by resorting to increasingly condescending behavior.

But I think these more active characters appeal to me because they’re engaged in the most fundamental human problem: the creation of personal meaning. Luke Skywalker never has to decide what things in life are worth doing. He’s told that he’s important, and he’s told what to do. The guy’s basically handed the answers to all of life’s existential questions on a silver platter.

Whereas a character like Carol Kennicott is heroic, to me, because she’s willing to answer that question herself. She’s willing to say, “I want to dedicate my life to making this town a better place to live.” And she’s willing to constantly reaffirm that statement, because there’s something about it that fills a need within herself.

I constantly wonder whether there’s anything in life that’s worth doing. But when I write a book about a girl who is, for instance, willing to cheat and scheme her way into her school’s valedictorianship, there’s something about that which is, to me, life-affirming. It’s saying, oh hey, I am able to imagine something in the world that’s worth desiring (even though I don’t personally desire it).

So those are all the things that I didn’t learn by staring at that list of books.

Fiction isn’t a very good tool for shedding light on how things work

Source: National Geographic
Source: National Geographic

I used to think that the purpose of fiction was to make sense of the world. Fiction was a hypothesis about how certain people would act under certain situations. That’s why I was drawn to science fiction. By creating more outré and stylized situations, it was possible to make bolder statements about human behavior.

The problem with this conception of fiction, though, is that fiction is written by individual human beings. And, with a few exceptions, it’s written primarily through the exercise of a person’s intuition and personal observations of the world. And intuition and personal observation even when they’re being exercised by a literate and highly intelligent person, aren’t very good at figuring stuff out about the world. If they were, then Aristotle would’ve sorted everything out 2500 years ago, and we all could’ve relaxed.

When people want to figure something out about the world, they use a little thing called science. And while the raw material of science is informed intuition (you can’t generate a hypothesis without some creative spark), the end result of the scientific process is that most of those intuitions  are discarded.*

Art’s not like that. If art is about figuring things out, then it’s all hypothesis and no confirmation.

However, that’s not really a problem, because I’ve come to think that the purpose of (most) art isn’t really to figure things out. Instead, I’d say that (one of) the purposes of art is to get away from that whole scientific mindset and to situate us more firmly within our own experience of the world

Because figuring things out is great and all, but scientific truth is reductive. You see all this stuff around you? This physical matter that comes in so many shapes and colors and textures and tastes? Well, all that stuff is really just made of 100+ basic elements. And those elements are just combinations of three basic particles. And those particles are just…etc, etc.

Science makes the world smaller. It turns everything into a subset of something else

And nowhere is this more apparent than in the science of human behavior..

For instance, one of the hot things in human behavior is happiness research. And most happiness research operates off of this happiness survey that they give to people. A survey that, in essence, asks people to rate their own happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. Now, this is a pretty controversial tool, since who knows what the survey is actually measuring? However, as I understand it, there is some data (some of it based on brain scans) to suggest that peoples’ answers on this survey are correlated with what they’d call their subjective feeling of happiness. And, using this survey, it’s possible to draw some broad conclusions about what kinds of things make people happy and what kinds of things don’t make them happy (earning more than $75,000 a year doesn’t make you happy, but getting married does, for instance).

However, when you really start to think about it, this paints a pretty bleak view of human existence. That’s because the broad range of human experience and behavior has been turned into a math problem. What thoughts and stimuli will make this number higher? And what will make it lower?

Now, it’s certainly possible to create fiction that’s based on the struggle to solve this math problem. And I think that plenty of very good fiction has been written about that (most of Emile Zola’s work, for instance; and the work of both Thomas Mann and Fyodor Dostoyevsky contains very good analyses of various political, social , philosophical, and psychological attempts to either deal with or dispense with math problem).

But I think it’s possible to get way too locked into the math problem and to start seeing one’s own life in those very reductive terms. It’s too easy, in this world, to spend every minute of every day thinking stuff like, “Am I happy? Is this making me happy? How can I get happier?”

And one function of art, for me, is to rescue us from that thought process.

Because life is not naturally a math problem. Life is naturally a really complicated and multi-faceted thing. And people do things for lots of reasons. And there are lots of strange things in it. For instance, I read an article in Slate the other day about tornado chasers. That was nuts! I couldn’t believe that this was an actual somewhat-organized hobby. I’d just assumed that most tornado videos were happenstance things.

It’s possible to view tornado-chasing in happiness-optimization terms: the people are seeking the euphoria that arises as a biological response to facing danger; and they’re also seeking the social status that comes with being seen as bold people.

But that also ignores the reality that these people CHASE TORNADOES. They listen on the radio and on Twitter and when they hear a report, they grab their cameras and hop in their SUVs and drive towards a whirling funnel of hundred mile an hour wind!

Now why do they do that? All that stuff about happiness is true. But why do they chase tornadoes instead of playing Russian Roulette with each other (although I’m sure there’s a group of people who do that, too)?

And the answer is…I have no idea. And the purpose of art isn’t to provide answers to that question. Nor is the purpose of art to raise that question and say, “Oh, science should really have a look at why people do that.”

Instead, I think the purpose of art is to strip away the question and allow us to look at the thing in itself. Art allows us to situate ourselves within the human experience and just remember, “Oh yeah, this is what being alive is like. This is what stuff looks like. This existence. This—motion, language, sound, color—is the medium through which I live my life.”

*I’m speaking to an idealized version of science here. In practice, things are more complicated. But at least science, unlike art, has ability to measure whether a statement is empirically true.

[Wrap Up 2013] This year, I learned that I shouldn’t bank on any reading project that involves more than 3 to 7 books.

At least half the people who've read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.
At least half the people who’ve read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.

I’m a big fan of grand reading plans. A few years ago, I read all the Russians. The year after that, I read Proust. And last year I read lots of Victorian literature. At the beginning of the year, I announced that I was going to spend this year reading all of the 19th century classics that I hadn’t already read. And I got a decent start. I read Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables and  Last Chronicle of Barset and then…I tried to read Daniel Deronda. And it was bad. Can’t put my finger on it. Just really boring and poorly structured. I gave up halfway through. And after that I was put off by the Victorian thing. So I kept looking around for a new project.

In the interim, I did do some little little reading projects. Like, I read Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan  and realized that maybe what I needed was more crime novels! So I read Gone Girl and Strangers on a Train and the Talented Mr. Ripley and Murder on the Orient Express and Silence of the Lambs.

But then I was distracted. I signed with my agent and was all, “Hey, shit, I should read some more YA novels, since that’s apparently what I write now!” So I solicited recommendations from the internet, and read some amazing YA, including Flora Segunda, The Forest of Hands And Teeth, Every Day, Eleanor & Park, and The Disreputable History Of Frankie Landau Banks.

But then I randomly started reading Mrs Dalloway and was really blown away by it and I decided, “Oh, okay, I’ll read the great works of modernism.” And I read Jacob’s Room and The Good Soldier and Invisible Man and Nightwood and As I Lay Dying and Ulysses (p2, p3and re-read To The LighthouseBut that didn’t continue either! Because my journey through the modernists led me to Buddenbrooks, and then I was like, “Wow, you know what? This is amazing! Maybe I’ll read a bunch of german novels now!” And I decided to be really concrete and systematic this time! I’d spend the whole rest of the calendar year reading German novels.

And I was pretty good. For a good two months (from mid-August to mid-October), I only read German novels. And this period included some great and thrilling reads like, A Man Without Qualities, The Magic Mountain, Radetzky March, Beware of Pity, Skylark, The Rider on the White Horse, and Every Man Dies Alone. But after I finished that last novel, I somehow just had no more enthusiasm for German novels. That was the reading initiative that I felt the most bad about. I had some great German novels that I was gonna get to: The Sleepwalkers, The Glass Bead Game, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and The Confusions of Young Torless. But I just didn’t want to do it…

So I started reading protofeminist novels. And I came across some great ones: Heartburn, The Dud Avocado, and Lolly Willowes. And I made a list of all kinds of other ones I was gonna get to next (The Unpossessed, The Old Man And MeAngel, Speedboat, etc…)

But that got derailed because I read and fell in love with The Closing Of The American Mind. And after Bloom took down Nietzsche, I just had to read Beyond Good And EvilAnd then that led to The Social Contract and An Enquiry Concerning Moral Sentiments.

I wanted a more modern look at the meaning of happiness, though, so I also read Flow. And I don’t even remember how that led me to books on communication, like Made To Stick and Influence. But I do remember that the really cold-blooded manipulations described in the last book made me interested in psychopaths, so I read some books on that. But then a Facebook post made me interested in a contemporary novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which made me wonder about other contemporary fictions and…well…I’ve pretty much abandoned all my reading schemas.

I don’t know. I’ve been served well, in the past, by reading projects. But they lack a certain spontaneity. They cause joy when you think about adopting them, because you imagine yourself possessing all this knowledge about and mastery of a certain genre. But when you’re actually doing it, the scheme eventually starts to become a chore. Leaping around naturalistically seems to maximize my happiness.

The only worry is that if I don’t watch myself, I’ll stop reading “difficult” books. But I don’t know how true that is. Certainly The Closing Of The American Mind is not a hugely easy book. I mean, it’s readable…but it’s also a book that’s repulsed me in the past. So we’ll see. Maybe this time next year I’ll be writing about the return of the reading scheme!

The purpose of life cannot be to pursue your own happiness

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I’ve never stopped being annoyed by the ‘y’ in this title

It’s a very common thing to state that you can’t directly pursue happiness, that if you do something solely for the pleasure and satisfaction that it brings you, then that pleasure and satisfaction will eventually fail to come (it’s called the Paradox of Hedonism). I’ve often thought that this was bull. I understand that it’s difficult to directly pursue happiness, but what else is there? It’s a bit silly for us all to go around pretending like we don’t really care about happiness and are just doing things as an end in themselves when really our entire lives are just a desperate attempt to evade suffering and acquire pleasure.

But I’m starting to come around. Not because I’ve stopped believing that happiness is the ultimate aim of life, but because I’ve stopped believing that there’s any straightforward path to happiness. For me, happiness seems to come and go in weird ways. Sometimes it seems to result in greater productivity and sometimes it seems to be a result of greater productivity. Sometimes it’s not correlated with productivity at all and then there are also times when I don’t feel like working at all. Happiness is like the weather. We all want the weather to be good, but when it’s bad, what can we do?

To a large extent, The Magic Mountain deals with many of these themes. In it, there’s an anarchist dude, Settembrini, who preaches the standard cant: the mission of man is to eliminate suffering and usher in a world of universal peace and happiness. And then there’s Naptha, who has a more quasi-mystical bent. It’s not entirely clear what the latter believes, but to me he’s a representative of the other path: the notion that there are things in the world that transcend happiness. To him, the Middle Ages were a healthier time than now, because we didn’t pretend that suffering could be cured: instead, suffering was worshipped. It’s weird and not altogether pleasant. But there is something to it…

Because there is a hollowness at the core of Settembrini’s philosophy. We feel, in some way, not just that it’s impossible to eliminate suffering, but that it’s pointless to do so. There’s a sterility to a world of infinite happiness. In some weird, irrational, altogether intuitive way, it feels like a dead end.

 

Anyway, my disenchantment with the pursuit of happiness is rooted in more practical considerations. A belief in the pursuit of happiness is a pleasant belief when you’re happy, but that is not the time when we need our beliefs. Our beliefs are what we rely upon to guide us when we are otherwise adrift. And it is at these points that a belief in the pursuit of happiness is not only useless, it is actively harmful. Because if you believe that happiness is the ultimate aim and purpose of life, then when you’re unhappy, your life is purposeless. If you’re unhappy, you’re just taking up space.

And there’s a sense in which you might say, “Oh, but if you believe in pursuing happiness, then you’ll pursue those things that make you happy and you’ll eventually be led out of unhappiness.”

But it doesn’t really work like that. Because when you’re unhappy, you don’t even really believe in happiness. It all feels so impossibly distant to you. Furthermore, it’s not always clear that the things that normally make you happy are going to work this time.

Whereas if you believe in something else–anything that is external to you–then you at least have something to guide you during dark times. You can at least get up in the morning and say, “I may not be happy, but the purpose of my life isn’t to be happy, it’s to do this other thing.”

Of course, it’s also very easy to get trapped by stoicism: to start thinking that since there is no chance of being happy, then there’s no problem with doing things that are bad for you and will never lead to happiness. So you do still have to, in some ways, look out for your own happiness even when you’re not looking out for it? And then that, again, is the ultimate problem with the whole Paradox of Hedonism concept. I guess the solution is to take advantage of moments of happiness to formulate your beliefs and aims (thus ensuring that these aims are unlikely to be incompatible with happiness), and then to hold fast to those aims even when you’re unhappy.

Finally finished reading the Magic Mountain

That was an unexpectedly long and involved undertaking. I blew through Buddenbrooks in a few days, so I assumed that although MM is long, it’d be a similarly easy read. However, it is not. It simply can’t be read at that speed, because not as much happens in it. You can’t just get caught in the plot and speed along. It’s all about interplay of ideas and very tiny movements in life up there.

Still, it was worth the 2+ weeks that I spent on it. I can’t say that it’s the book I’ve most enjoyed reading, but it’s definitely a book that has taught me things which no other book has. I’ve never before read a book (by someone I respect) that has made a solid, sustained, and intellectually serious case for a mystical approach to life. Mann’s brilliance is that when he argues ideas he uses spokespeople who are both brilliant and ridiculous. You can discard their actual words and arguments, but the underlying beauty and harmony of their worldview shines through. The point is not the things they say, but the things you feel when they say them

Posting on Sunday is so freeing. Since no one is really reading, I can just kind of say things.

I’m halfway through The Magic Mountain. It’s a really interesting novel. Very evocative (you really feel like you’re up on that mountain) and full of comic characters. Nothing happens. I mean it. Nothing happens in this novel. Well, I guess he kind of got with the lady. But only somewhat.

And it’s not a problem that nothing happens in the novel, but it does lead you to wonder: How is this supposed to be read? Because it challenges my reading codes. As is normal for science fiction readers, I’m against interpretation. When I read, a spaceship isn’t a symbol for the decadence of capitalism…it’s a spaceship. A cockroach isn’t a metaphor for the anonymous, scuttling existence that we lead under modern capitalism…it’s a cockroach. A genie isn’t about the hopeless, unfulfillable desires engendered in us by modern capitalism, it’s…well, you get it.

(P.S. Is it still fashionable to blame things on modern capitalism?)

So when I read about some mofos hanging out in a tuberculosis sanitarium, I assume that’s pretty much what it’s about. However, that reading clearly doesn’t work. The protagonist, Hans Castorp, is so stolid and superficial that he can’t really carry a traditional realist novel. So one is forced (as distasteful as it is to me) to lean on the traditional allegorical interpretations of the novel (i.e. that it somehow represents the state of modern Western civilization).

Of course, the allegory isn’t exact. One can’t just say, “Oh, Hans Castorp represents modern man, a person who’s been cut off from his traditional beliefs [by modern capitalism].” If it was that simple, there’d be no need to write a novel. There’s a weird transmutation here, a density of symbology, in which meaning accretes around the characters.

The most interesting thing about the novel is the characters relationship to their own illness. They want to be cured, but they also revel in being sick. There’s something very true about that. We want to find the truth, but we also love being lied to. We might circumvent authority (just as the residents continuously flout the sanitarium’s rules), but we are afraid to leave it behind altogether (the residents can leave at any time, but they’re afraid to go against the doctors’ recommendations). We desire a kind of certainty that the world is unable to provide us. And in order to get it, we have to lie to build an illusion for ourselves.

 

In other news…teaching starts soon! Just three days! Shouldn’t be too big of a deal. I’ve already taught the class before. And my schedule this semester is unreal. All my classes (those that I take and those that I teach) are on Tuesday and Thursday. Five free days every week! It is truly the life that man was meant to lead.

The semester has gone great so far. Good to hang out with my Baltimore peeps again. And really good to settle back into routine. Waking up at a set time (you might notice that I am writing this at around 8 AM on a Sunday morning) has been hard at times, but is pretty rewarding. I don’t know what it is, but every year, as fall approaches, I feel really energized and try lots of new things and get tons of stuff done. For instance, I’ve done some pretty extensive tinkering with how I track and set goals for my writing, and I have a sense that I might very soon break through to the next level, productivity-wise.

The energy will fade and give way to wintertime, eventually, which is a bit depressing, but we just have to get used to these things, I suppose.

I’ve become obsessed with German fiction

There are hundreds of books that I don’t read even though I know I’d enjoy them. I have a copy of Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? on my e-reader, and I’ve browsed through the first few pages on a number of occasions. And each time, I’ve thought, “This looks really good.”

And I’ve still held off on reading it.

Because I don’t want to just have really good reading experiences; I want to have great reading experiences. And in order to have a great reading experience you need the right book at the right time in your life. You can’t plan these things, and you especially can’t force them. You can’t say, “This month will be my Tolstoy month” because you just don’t know. It might turn out to be your young adult novel month.

It requires boldness and curiosity in order to figure out what book is the right one for you. You need to consider many different books and make an honest try at reading them and be willing to abandon them in an instant, without prejudice, if they don’t appeal to you.

Strange as it may sound, I read Ulysses because when I opened the file, the book felt different from all the other times I’d opened the file. It spoke to me, whereas previously it’d been silent. However, I sometimes wonder if maybe it wasn’t the right summer for it after all. Reading the novel took 45 days and was frequently somewhat tedious. I breezed through the last half of it, though, so perhaps it is just one of those books that teaches you how to read itself*.

But when I read Buddenbrooks, the time was definitely right! Not only did I love it, I became so excited by it that I decided to make a survey of German language fiction! I don’t know why that is where my mind leapt. I’d kind of felt like maybe I’d spend the rest of the year finishing up the modernist classes, but somehow wading into a new and strange national literature felt more exciting than reading whatever Woolf and Faulkner and Hemingway novels I haven’t already consumed.

After finishing Buddenbrooks, I read Joseph Roth’s Radetzky’s March, which is a novel–written by an Austrian Jew–about the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Apparently, it is a very famous, very classic novel for German-speaking people. I’d never heard of it. But it was awesome! Embedded in here is also a very touching father and son story. There’s a sternness in their relationship that never wavers, but you can see how they love each other. It’s amazing. Very emotional. Also pretty short, for this kind of family epic (it goes through four generation of this family in pretty short order).

Then I read Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice, which was fun to read and all, but…a guy can get tired of reading another tale of doomed homosexual love. At least in Giovanni’s Room, they actually had sex. It wasn’t all just staring at a kid on the beach.

And now I’m reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which is really good! It’s about a somewhat morbid old artistic / philosophical type who suddenly comes alive. It’s hard to describe, though: it’s not like some horrible Jim Carrey movie about a businessman who starts to loosen up. The execution is much more interesting than you’d think.

Anyway, I have a copy of Mann’s Doctor Faustus on hold at the JHop library, and I hope to start on that when I get back. But we’ll see. Maybe my enthusiasm for the germans will fade as rapidly as it came.

 

In other news, I should be in DC by tonight and Baltimore by tomorrow. It’s been a good car trip. I felt a lot of fatigue, so I took it pretty slow. However, I’ve just been really happy over most of it. And if I’m happy despite the dislocation and sleep debt, then I know my real mood must be really high. I can’t tell if I’m happy because there is nothing in my life that is worrying me or if I’m so happy that I can’t be worried about things.

Like, I’ll start to worry about something and then I’ll realize, “Ehh, that’s not a real problem.” And then I’ll look for something else to worry about it and just won’t be there.

Usually if there’s nothing else to worry about, I’ll worry about the story I’m working on. But that hasn’t caused me much angst. It’s a crazy story, and its form means that I’m lucky if half an hour of work on it yields a few hundred works. But I think it’s coming together. Yeah…hold on…let me try to worry about it not coming together…nope…the worry is not arising. Not sure if that means the story is going well or if I am just that worry-proof right now.

The literature of exhaustion, and the impoverishment of the imagination

A view of every town and city in America.
A view of every town and city in America.

The thing that struck me about John Barth’s collection Lost In The Funhouse was that it was as much a literary essay as a collection of stories. Its theme was that our literature was in an age of exhaustion: there’s a sense that all the salient point have been raised; the only thing left is to pick everything apart with self-reference and metatextuality–to exhaust all possible shades of meaning from this large, but still limited, set of tropes that our forebears have given us.

I have to say, I think there’s something to this. I often feel an impoverishment of my own imagination, particularly when it comes to science fiction. Has any recent author really come up with a science-fictional element that’s as powerful as the wormhole or the generation ship or the robot? In my opinion, not really. The internet did come along and provide a boost to SF writers, but the internet is also a bit hard to dramatize. The best one can do is turn cyberspace into a real physical place and after that it’s really no longer the internet. For fifty years or so, SF writers have been reconfiguring old elements and joining them to techniques they’ve scavenged from modernist and postmodern literature and trying to make the whole thing limp along. And, well, it still sort of works.

That’s one thing I’ve been struggling with, recently. The more I think about things, the more everything starts to seem like everything else. People are very different in the ways that they act and perceive the world…but they all seem to want more or less the same thing. And they have thousands upon thousands of different occupations, but at least half of those occupations come down (from the dramatic point of view) to sitting in front of a computer screen and typing. Nor does driving across America help the situation. At least from the side of the highway, every town and city looks the same. Even geographically speaking, all of America west of the Mississippi looks like more or less the same temperate deciduous forest (with some mountains thrown in here and there).

And, of course, I know that the world isn’t the same. Part of the fun of fiction (and poetry) and the leg up it has over philosophy is that it delights in the essence of things: the vocal tics, the clothes, routines, the foods, the games, the possessions, the mannerisms. Fiction is as concerned with surfaces as it is with essences. And in my fiction, I am trying to find my way back to those surfaces. But it’s difficult. The tendency is to intellectualize everything, and reduce it all to the same thin gruel.

Buddenbrooks continues to be awesome! I’m sorry that in my last post, I described the plot as predictable. It’s not! What I didn’t realize was that the plotting is very canny. The tension in the novel is unbearable. You see the characters struggle with these awful decisions, and then they make them…and no disaster happens. The novel isn’t about disasters befalling people…it’s about a slow decay that happens between the chapters. There’s a scene where I am right now where the patriarch of the family (the third patriarch to emerge thus far) is struggling with this ineffable loss of vitality; he’s doing the same things, living in the same way…but the magic has gone out of him. It spoke to me.

(Although I am a long way from losing the magic =)

Thomas Mann’s _Buddenbrooks_ is the last sprawling 19th century family epic

 

Isn't this cover so ugly?
Isn’t this cover so ugly?

I have rarely loved a book as much as I am loving _Buddenbrooks._ I meant to read it years ago, but I always kept getting derailed by thinking, “Hmm, if I’m going to read Mann, I should really read The Magic Mountain.”

Well that was silly. Buddenbrooks is its own thing: a novel about the slow decline of a German mercantile family. It doesn’t follow the standard naturalist model, where they struggle and struggle and almost succeed and then descend into madness and depravity. Nope. It’s pretty much a straight descent all the way through (though I think it picks up pace later…I’m only 1/3rd of the way through).

You know exactly what’s going to happen. Even in its specifics, the plot has no surprises. You know the daughter is going to fall in love with someone unsuitable. You know that the husband she’s forced to marry is going to turn out to be very unsuitable. You know exactly when the patriarch will die. It’s interesting…even though the plot is very standard-issue, I don’t think the book would work without it. The plot imparts a level of acceleration that the reader requires.

But on a page by page level, Buddenbrooks is effortless. I love the very particular brand of rectitude that Mann has given this family. They’re so calculating, so concerned with the family’s fortunes and its history. When the daughter even takes pride in writing her horrible marriage down in their family bible; she’s happy because the marriage was so distasteful, and yet she was willing to do it anyway.

And the moral decay within the family is a subtly drawn thing. It’s not like the kids are wastrels and gamblers. They just have a little more pride and a little less drive than their forefathers. But even then, there’s a feeling like maybe it wouldn’t matter…maybe families just decline for no reason…or because of bad luck. It’s said that Thomas Mann based this account on the history of his own family, and I can believe it. There’s a kindness here that novelists don’t usually extend to members of the bourgeoisie.

Reading a novel like this makes me realize how baggy English-language (and particularly British) novels tend to be. They’re always full of comic asides and ludicrous plot twists and tortured structures (the cousins in Jane Eyre; Lydia’s marriage in Pride and Prejudice; every Dickens character; the entrance of John Raffles in Middlemarch; etc, etc)

Personally, I blame Shakespeare. The man was obv a genius, but a) even his tragic plays were full of comic characters (i.e. the opening of Romeo and Juliet); and b) his plots made no sense (oh my god, need I even mention the boxes in Merchant of Venice?)

Because of him, most English novels tend to have a humorous element and a merry unconcern for logic. And that’s awesome! It’s what I most enjoy about British novels. French, on the other hand, is so infused with deadly seriousness that you can’t even tell when a novelist is trying to be funny (like, come on, I still have no idea whether the nuns in Les Miserables are a joke or not).

But this does mean that there are certain effects–subtle movements in psychology or sociology–that are absent from most English novels. Basically, if Buddenbrooks was an English novel, one of these kids would definitely be an alcoholic. And a gambler.

(Of course, maybe I just haven’t gotten to the alcohol / gambling part yet =)

And that’s why we read novels from other countries.