Is there any hope for the novel?

I ask because I’ve spent time this summer with crawdads and Evvie and stupid self-involved conversations with idiotic young women, and I wonder if the whole art form is over, and even if that’s maybe a good thing whatever my personal preferences.

Which are to passionately clutch my book to my heart and spew invective at the uncaring universe.

Only, if the novel can survive this current self-referential vapidity, what then? Where to, what next, and more to the point, how? And what is it, exactly, that’s savorless here: the form, or the stagnant, artificially sweetened thinking poured into it? 

I know, I know: I’ve been down this road before, but I think I’m a proven, trustworthy pathfinder for this particular journey. (Those who’ve encountered my own fiction might disagree; I’ll take that argument.) But there are plenty of fellow travelers: this blog was inspired in part by a comment by Ross Douthat on the passing of Toni Morrison, quoted by Brigid Delaney in The Guardian:  “Something has changed in the cultural status of the novel.” What a genteel little understatement! Delaney wonders about the impact of social media; I suspect that’s symptomatic of a wider, even more critical disturbance.

This is only a quick post on an off week, which is to say I haven’t thought all this through yet, but next weekend’s a holiday and I hope to post something better Labor Day. Until then, it’s a matter of letting the questions themselves point the way: is the novel still an important form, one that can move or enlighten societies, even nations? If not, why not? If yes, what the hell happened?

Suggestions welcome.

MM

 

Photo credit: Ellen Forsyth, Fiction, genre sign Burton Barr Central Library, Phoenix Public Library (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Me and Marvin, the sad wastepaper basket

The first white wicker wastepaper basket

A few summers back, someone threw a tennis or golf ball onto the roof of my little apartment building, where it clogged up the drainage system. My landlord came by to say the tenant downstairs was complaining about water coming through her ceiling. The wet splotch on my bedroom floor was nothing dramatic; we concluded an open window was to blame, and paid no attention to the slight stain on the ceiling. Cut to a week later and water was dripping from the stain, now a definite crack, at a rate that required a bucket but was still containable. Twelve hours later, it was a literal downpour, I’d been up over twenty hours dumping water into the bathtub from the big kitchen trashcan and every other large pot and bucket I owned, and all my towels were in circulation between my upper floor and the basement laundry. Early morning I came back from a laundry run to find the entire ceiling down inside my bedroom, slanting from tall dresser across the bed, broken into gigantic pieces, with stuff like wet gray wool hanging from above, and pieces of white plaster driven into everything. The entire room smelled sour. There’d been enough water to fill a swimming pool over my bedroom, and it had entered with force. I think I actually laughed.

So then a dehumidifier, painters, spackling, everything; I camped out in the living room, which was kind of fun. A section of the bedroom’s wood floors was in sharp waves; I was told they’d subside, but three years later and it’s still startling if I step on that area by accident. It’s hard to explain the overall effect of this kind of experience. I didn’t think much of it at first; it was all handled professionally and I was given a break on the rent to cover the dresser, so I thought I was fine.

But I’ve just recovered from –  what? a minor depression? simply being overwhelmed? – to actually get around to making everything presentable again. It’s been exhausting: the dresser was part of a set, the backings of the framed prints were warped, family photos were ruined, never mind what happened to the drapes and quilt. Never mind that my low-grade leather living room set peeled beyond redemption. At first I patched the bald spots with shoe polish, which dripped and ruined the carpet.

You have to pay someone to haul all that stuff away.

Now I have new furniture, which is reassuring. And now enter the great big company that brings anything I want right to my door, so I don’t  want to hear about them being employee-abusing, small-business-destroying vultures, at least not right now. They sent me a duvet, which I love. And throw pillows. And picture frame mats and backings. And spray paint for the wicker pieces. And touch-up paint for the woodwork. And a living room rug and then another rug for the hall. And some new houseplants. And flower pots and potting soil and plant food. And surge protectors. And an electric blanket and a regular blanket and towels. And a laundry hamper and some kitchen appliances and a shower curtain and regular curtains and a wok. And a throw quilt for the new sofa, and storage bags for the closet, cutting boards, a vacuum cleaner, and an alarm clock. And a good deal more, every restoration breeding a further desire.

The second white wicker wastepaper basket

They attempted to send me a white wicker wastepaper basket. UPS got it as far as a facility in NJ and there it stayed. Strange; did someone really need one that badly?

So I clicked onto Chat, which is something I enjoy, which tells you a lot about me. Chat said they were sorry, and if it didn’t arrive by Sunday let them know and they’d send another.

Sunday evening I logged onto Chat and let them know it hadn’t arrived, and they ordered me another white wicker wastepaper basket, which made it to a facility in NJ and stayed there. Note that lots of the other stuff I order through this same mega-company processes through the same facility with no issues. Why white wicker wastepaper baskets? Drug smuggling? Some obscure fetish?

I logged onto Chat and explained, whimsically I think, and they were apologetic; Chat is consistently apologetic, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. They agreed there was a serious problem and promised it would be reported immediately. Also they refunded my money, because I wasn’t about to try again. Then I ordered a white wicker wastepaper basket from another vendor that specialized in home decor.

Marvin

They sent me Marvin. He came in an unmarked cardboard box, wrapped in an unmarked plastic bag, with the plastic loop for a price tag attached to him but no price tag. Marvin the anonymous. His photo doesn’t do him justice: he’s grayer, and mottled, and kind of mushy. Looking at him, you have to wonder why anyone would create him on purpose: an existential expression of the concept “wastepaper basket?” I went to the vendor’s website and connected to Chat. They were very apologetic; they would refund my money, but unfortunately the item I wanted was out of stock. They helped me order a similar white wicker wastepaper basket. As for Marvin, I uploaded a photo of him at Chat’s instruction, and they said that rather than return him, I should just hold onto him for a while. If I didn’t hear from them in a few weeks I could donate him to a charity. I swear this is true.

A few days later, a white wicker wastepaper basket actually arrived. Hurrah!

A few day later, another white wicker wastepaper basket arrived, a twin to the first. I decided to keep it for my refurbished bedroom and logged onto the evil humungous company’s Chat and told them they needed to bill me all over again because the item did finally arrive, and they understood, which was pretty impressive.

The third white wicker wastepaper basket

A few days later, another white wicker wastepaper basket arrived, so I had four: three identical white ones and Marvin, in his box, in my bedroom closet. I printed out a return label and left a white wicker wastepaper basket at the UPS pick-up at my office building.

And I started wondering if the whole incident of the bedroom ceiling falling in and flooding out my apartment might have affected me more than I first realized. The flood, and possibly some other things, all resulting in a predilection to Chat.

Me and Marvin, the endearingly pathetic, squishy piece of grayish braided something or other I’ll be throwing out.

MM

A classic Hollywood weekend: Tarantino, mass shootings, and the sixties

It’s a groove, man. An Age of Aquarius blast of info, no getting around it. But what, precisely is the message?

Hey GET DOWN!
Oh, sorry; just someone at my neighbor’s door. More mass shootings this weekend so I’m a little jumpy.

Are you with me here? I’ve spent much of the past nine months revisiting late sixties, early seventies Hollywood, courtesy of Orson Welles, Eve Babitz, Charles Bukowski, Robert Stone, and now Quentin Tarantino. So much concentration on when and how it all ended: Manson of course, Altamont, or merely young people getting older. This is nonsense: it never ended, it was only just beginning. We just didn’t realize what “it” was.’ We thought those geeks in the Silicon Valley were outliers but they were the heart of it, the elite forces of the New Age. Maybe they need to be schooled by #MeToo but they created it, too, and every other virtual force for good or whatever.

They were later on the scene, behind TV, that first harbinger of unavoidable reality and the undermining of the American myth. Aquarius! Tarantino’s film is about the demise of old Westerns and GIs taking on the evil Nazis, all those black-and-white heroes with their guns drawn, ready to teach the bad guys a lesson. Guns are just so effective.

Take it back further, to road trips taken with Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, all that rootless post-war generation that crashed into the sixties with a rumor of enlightenment and a stalwart despair, with the urge to keep moving, but meanwhile think. They’re back again in Stone’s book (he sadly managed to miss the sexual escapades of Eve’s Hollywood). Unlike the naifs they inspired, the beat generation had some experience of the world; whereas the flower children, the protestors, the trippers – they were drunk on vivid possibility as much as chemical substances. They – we – thought ourselves good.

Today we know better. We see the havoc wrought by our immigrant ancestors and parents and obstinately selfish selves, or else we  see how we’ve been cheated, and how cleverly, and by whom. Too many of us are frightened and refuse to see, and turn to guns to try and stop the coming righteous horde. But we know all that. I’ve written an entire novel about the inevitable moral crisis that must follow on our growing awareness of our imprint on everything everywhere.

Hollywood, manufacturer of every mimicked gesture and solution and recourse, passionately denies any responsibility for gun violence. The town has always worshipped and profited from violence. Tarantino, via Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, unexpectedly delivered me yet again to Musso and Frank, at this point my regular literary hangout. My God, what is it about this place, that everything I read or see ends up in its dim, comforting confines? Tarantino’s Hollywood is a town in sad transition, its studio system moribund, its narratives suddenly trite and suspect. The hero of an old TV Western (Leonardo DiCaprio)and his sidekick / stunt man (Brad Pitt), a veteran given to violence, are on the outs in this new world, and Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski, are very in, but Manson and his crew are watching, figuring in their clouded, resentful way about how to inflict pain on the fortunate. They’re terrified but ultimately ridiculous children, under the malicious influence of the most pathetic child of them all, the brutalized child of a brutal system. The tension builds, an unlikely detour occurs, and there’s Tex Watson pointing a gun at Brad Pitt’s character, who, stoned out of his mind, humors him and points a finger gun back. It is one of the most astonishing moments I’ve ever seen on film.

Because of course Tex is a joke; obviously any rational adult would recognize a narcissist, a fascist, a lost child, and all the other scared assholes inexplicably running around loose. Only no, it turns bloody in the end; I guess somebody, somewhere wasn’t paying attention. In his movie, Tarantino plays at God and gives the victory to the old-timers; they vanquish the specter of natural consequences just like they won over the Germans

It’s absolutely lovely, but it didn’t happen that way, and here we are with all this truth.

Except it’s not that simple, either. Hollywood, though, is an industry town, hungry for the dollar, self-referential, always willing to go as low as it takes. And arguably movies are destructive by definition. To make something, anything, beautiful is to make it obsolete, to effectively kill it. So maybe the trite old movies did play a part, did pave the way by getting our illusions out of the way.

We’ve never been very conscious or considerate about how we use art; we just throw it out there. Orson Welles started filming The Other Side of the Wind in the fall of 1970. It was to be his comeback movie, a movie about a famous director making a comeback movie in transitional Hollywood, a film designed for young audiences, filled with meaningless sex and violence. Welles film debuted, miraculously, last fall; his doomed director delivers its final line:

You shoot the great places and pretty people. All those girls and boys. Shoot ’em dead.

Peace out.

Photo credits: Sarah Stierch, Charles Manson (CC BY 2.0) / Andrea Pass, Sixties (CC BY 2.0)

What’s Not New in Fiction

Ah, sour grapes. Listen, I read a fair amount of fiction, but if I wanted to describe what I’ve seen in the past few years I could do it with  a sadly short list of topics and types. They tend to overlap, I presume by necessity, which means they can be freely combined should you wish to construct a generic bestseller:

1. The woman who discovers / recovers herself. These stories tend to be pretty straightforward, even Little Women grade straightforward, which is really odd for a contemporary theme. They’re all: When will she finally figure out what everyone’s known all along? She never, ever figures out anything everyone hasn’t known all along, except maybe a relatively unimportant plot point. 

2. The New York or California novel (can be Dublin, etc.). This is what I think of as a DIRTY book, one you find again six months later and wonder: “Did I read that yet?” It’s highly intelligent and wannabe edgy, drops the names of artists and rappers, invariably details what the protagonist has for breakfast, if rife with job dissatisfaction, has a troubled but uninteresting romance, and  why the hell am I reading this pretentious, self-involved crap anyway?

3. The psychological mystery, increasingly feminist, although I suspect that tag is sometimes added after the fact. Here the violence is extreme, the danger real, secrets often span generations, and if it’s set in a small town things aren’t remotely what they seem. You know where you’re heading with this one; it’ll be unpleasant but cathartic. Have a fun trip.

4. The immigrant experience, which turns out to be difficult and often depressing. There’s generally a return to the home country, where strangely, things seem to be going better. This one is important, but on its own too familiar.

5. The fantasy element book, usually employing some kind of convergence or warp in time, and interesting because it exists. It hasn’t been done right yet. This renewed interest in the way time works is about something actually profound that deserves a decent book, and I think I’ll write it.

6. The adolescent experience, inner city or rural, featuring drugs and/or incest and/or physical abuse. It will end with the protagonist in a new if not necessarily more favorable situation.

7. The book about the gay / trans experience. This overlaps one or more other categories; I don’t know that I’ve seen it standing alone, but maybe that’s just me.  A couple of weeks ago I read a novel / memoir about a gay semi-rural immigrant dealing and the opioid epidemic. It was valid and quite decently done, simultaneously fresh and tired.  

8. The science fiction book about the Internet or else a dystopian future / the science fiction book about alien invaders or a mission to Mars. Sometimes a random gleam of light, an actual idea, winds through the simple survival mechanics of this genre; merely an invention, mind you, not an insight or revelation, not that kind of raw concept.

None of the above are anything like great, although they’re constantly described as such. All those pages, all those characters, and not one truly tears the heart. Compare, for example The Goldfinch, which is objectively a terrible book, derivative and sloppy, and I loved it.

Well, once artificial intelligence takes over the publishing business along with everything else, it will automatically select only excellent works of fiction precisely fitted to the above urgent topics. That’s because  AI is entirely self-referential. And after all, if you have to choose between equally good books, and you really can’t tell which is best, or why, go for the one that’ll make it a better world. The book-buying public, passionate adherents to the cause,  will naturally love it. 

I suggest AI favor climate change as well. I definitely need some fresh air.

And speaking of fiction, see the Home page for a link to purchase Worthy of This Great City, or read the Prologue on the Excerpts page.

Photo credits: Giang, Bookstore (CC BY 2.0) / Bovee and Thill, Artificial Intelligence (CC BY 2.0) / Sparsh Ahuja, Genius (CC BY 2.0)

A republic, if you can keep it.

A Bastille Day update: Today in America we postulate a living, evolving, and therefore potentially inclusive constitution. We place our faith in its imperatives, expecting them to supersede the dictates of the past: of race and religion and political belief and individual need. If our faith is so strong, why should we fear the immigrant?

(The sale on the Kindle of Worthy of This Great City has ended, as advised, and it’s back to $7.99. Hardly a fortune; how about a little support for the arts!)

July 7, 2019: So Mr. Franklin reportedly replied, when asked what form of government this little invention of a nation would take, and he had reason to wonder. We were so scattered, so lacking any kind of cohesion or clear purpose beyond just getting rid of the Brits.

Declaration of Independence, Independence Hall

I spent the 4th wandering my city, taking bad photos with my phone, wondering what all the revelers were celebrating. Certainly not the same thing. It reminded me of the Bicentennial, another scattered, regional or local event. Each to his own, baby. For liberty, for a day off from work, for a concert or food on the Ben Franklin Parkway, for splashing in a fountain or in the jets at Dilworth Plaza, or waiting in line to tour Independence Hall. For fireworks, of course.

Ben Franklin Parkway, July 4th 2019

 A republic, and not to push the old “as opposed to a democracy” argument, but here we are decrying the electoral vote because it did exactly what it was supposed to do; it provided  some measure of solidarity by forcing us to actually look at each other, if not willingly or with respect. Is it better to look away sometimes, and simply forge ahead? Is that necessary? Perhaps it is, but these things must be carefully weighed. 

Dilworth Plaza, 4th of July 2019

Then think about upholding ideas carefully crafted out of compromise and intelligence and forethought down in Philadelphia’s historic district, and whether those familiar, hallowed concepts could possibly endanger their own existence. Because that’s what I hear.

And this is no time for a crisis of faith.

 

(The sale on the Kindle of Worthy of This Great City continues one more week only ($2.99).

 

Fountain at Logan Circle