Monday, April 18, 2005

The Wearying Exploit(ation)s of Kavalier & Clay

or Why Contemporary Literary Fiction Generally Sucks My Ass

For the purposes of this discussion, let us examine two big problem things about literary novelists in general, with specific exemplary reference to Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Thing the first: they invariably want to Say Something. There's this tremendous desire to sententiate, to observe the world wisely and express Truths about it. And, in part because they've only got the furniture of the real world to work with, they generally seem to feel they have no choice but to come out and just say things. Which is just about never a good idea. Truths(tm) tend to show up pretty fucking garish and blowsy in direct light; they want metaphor and diffusion filters to maintain their mysterious charm. They want slipping into the reader's cocktail, not delivering on a platter with parsley and flourish.

Chabon and his ilk nah get that. The action in K&C is liberally studded with carefully expatiated observations on the wider implications of it all, both for the characters and for Humanity at large. Here's a chapter-end page opened at random:

The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew that it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.

Now, the things he actually says may very well be true, apt, or at least competently expressed. His prose is generally pretty decent, very occasionally pause-makingly skilled. (The above not being a very good example; 'the true magic of this broken world'? Come on, man.) But the fact is, on the level of artistic legitimacy, the plot he's constructed (and indeed most any fiction plot I can imagine) can't bear the weight of so much explicit signification. It buckles and warps, and the reader is recruited to help hold it up, while also being condescended to, in a way that I find both presumptuous and terribly tiring.

I think writing in SF and fantasy can make it easier for the novelist to avoid this fate. Not all genre people manage it, by any means, but I think it's made vastly easier for an author who is interested in thinking about Things, if she's able to look at them, and talk about them, sidelong and from strange vantage points. It's not the whole answer, but it's a big chunk. At the very least, like I was saying wrt yon wearying Berger exercise, it provides novel costumes for old themes to masquerade around in, which for my money makes a much more enticing read. Give me a social anxiety in a monster suit any day, or better yet just give me the suit and I'll stick in my own social anxiety de choix.

Thing the second: Specific to the literary novelist who must needs use the Twentieth Century as her Canvas. There is a finite number of historically significant events in the twentieth century, and these people can not resist bumping their little Everymen up against them. I think actually it might be their groping attempt to get at something like the filters I'm talking about, an inchoate desire for a prism to refract their Truths through. But a) they can't leave it alone, they're neurotically anxious to make sure we get it; and b) it's a doomed proposition anyway. You can't squeeze any more juice out of the Holocaust, you just can't. You gain nothing but worn-smooth preconceptions by trotting your protag over that treadmill. You're signposting your landscape with landmarks so familiar they're effectively invisible. There's no cognitive purchase for anything but the always-already recognized. Likewise with McCarthyism, the Summer of Love, the Depression, all these other tourist attractions that novelists (particularly American ones?) can't stop haunting.

The fact of Chabon's having taken comics history as his particular theme park, while again not-unskillfully pulled off, doesn't go very far to mitigate the fundamental imaginative bankruptcy of his program. He tricks out his dark tormented Mitteleuropean refugee hero (complete with cruelly drawn-out family nazitragedy), and his closeted little Brooklyn jewboy sidekick, and he essentially says 'Don't you see? We're all superheroes really. Superheroes are...why, they're us!' That unpardonably sticky Hallmark essentialism glossed up with the minutiae-porn of period flavor and flash-frozen against a flat backdrop of History. There's something hopeless, and tiring, and up-giving, and faintly tawdry about it. You feel like you've been sold something shoddy, in the end.

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