Economies of Scale, Part 1

Fiction is a superbly flexible medium: it is a skin that stretches or contracts to contain any form. James Joyce wrote fiction, as did James Fenimore Cooper. Tom Clancy writes fiction, Jonathan Franzen writes fiction, Danielle Steele and Jhumpa Lahiri write fiction. Raymond Carver wrote fiction; so have Newt Gingrich and Scooter Libby, and L. Ron Hubbard definitely wrote fiction.

In other words, fiction is the most omnivorous of artistic genres: it has the appetite to devour and digest the entire world. This is even truer if the definition of fiction is expanded into something broader, like ‘storytelling’ – which would include television, filmmaking, drama, and even poetry, in addition to prose fiction.

For a critic, then, to blow the whistle on an entire class of fiction and claim that its members are unsuccessful – not because of execution but because of their chosen purview – is a pretty bald move. Fiction doesn’t have an out-of-bounds; it is all but unrefereed. Yet, according to a recent article in the New York Observer, one critic, Walter Benn Michaels, took to task ‘three groups of writers’:

those who traffic narcissistically in memoir and self-examination; those who write fiction about past horrors like the Holocaust and slavery; and those who focus in their work on the tribulations of individual characters while ignoring the societal pressures that determine those characters’ lives.

Surely too many books in the first category are granted the privilege of publication, especially in recent years. But the problem with those books isn’t their genre – wouldn’t literature be much the poorer without its great solipsists, without Montaigne, Rimbaud, Proust, Updike, Roth, Amis? – but their badness: the poverty of their craft. As for fiction concerned with past assaults on our collective humanity, I can think of many which are successful, but will cite as an example just one: William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, which was published in 1979, which managed to draw in both the Holocaust and slavery, which is pretty damned narcissistic, and which is a masterpiece.

As for the attack on fiction built around ‘the tribulations of individual characters’ lives,’ Michaels’s point, it seems, is that novelists ought to qualify those individual tribulations with the socioeconomic weather that surrounds them. In our current recession, it is an interesting idea – not because fiction ever ought to do one thing over another, but because the recession is a reminder (perhaps, for a privileged few, the first such reminder) of how deeply one’s money or lack thereof colors his days and nights. That’s indeed the stuff of literature.

The ne plus ultra, according to the article, is The Wire. Indeed, few better instances of powerful, enduring storytelling from this decade exist. But, while that television show’s brilliance lies partly in its determination to take a biopsy from several of Baltimore’s major organs (another aspect of its brilliance is the memorable and witty scripted dialogue: a purely literary attribute), in some ways that biopsy is limited. If nothing else, the show demonstrated that the cops, the drug dealers, the port workers, the journalists, the teachers, and even the politicians all began their lives on the same Baltimore streets. Every collar on the show is one or another shade of blue.

And that’s why the show works: for all its sprawl, it has constraints. A ‘more ambitious’ effort (to use Michaels’s term) could quickly get out of hand: films like Babel and Syriana, for instance, draw connections between much more disparately located people and organizations, but with mixed artistic success. Those films stretch elastically to include characters who come from genuinely different socioeconomic streams – Moroccan shepherds, Mexican domestic workers, wealthy suburban Wasps – but, while frequently possessing a raw force, they also fail to achieve the dense, layered coherence of The Wire.

A better example of a film that parses globalization without resorting to soapbox rhetoric is Summer Hours, the most recent film from Olivier Assayas, in which three adult siblings must divide their mother’s estate, a rich trove of art and art objects. (These people never would have crossed paths with the characters of The Wire, except, as happens in the film, briefly, when a wealthy daughter is caught with a bag of marijuana.) The film conducts itself within a highly condensed universe: it is elegiac, and has at its center a death, but everyone involved has a good salary and health insurance. No one suffers like the Moroccan kids in Babel suffer – which is to say that Assayas never acknowledges all the great horrible imbalance of the world that makes it possible for one small family to own a gorgeous summer estate in rural France – yet Summer Hours is an immensely absorbing and successful work of art. The film wears a legible thematic undercoating – a thesis about globalization and the diminution of French national identity – but it is the emotional coloration of intimacies that registers uppermost for the viewer: the restrained bickering among siblings who no longer see that much of each other, the hints of a scandal from the past, the frisson of surprised laughter between husband and wife, the sudden grip of grief as it overtakes a grown man at the wheel of a car.

[Today’s post will continue on Monday.  – IRM]


~ by mackenz on June 11, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: