Economies of Scale, Part 2

[Today’s post continues and concludes the column that started on Thursday.  – IRM]

In a conversation about storytelling, The Wire is a pretty unique for-instance. For one thing, the show extends across sixty episodes – 3,600 minutes of video – to tell its many stories. Within any one scene, the attraction of events on the screen has much more to do with the ‘tribulations of individual characters’ than it does with something you might study in an economics class. The stories of The Wire flow through the canals of individuality in each of its characters, as does Summer Hours. Films like Babel and Syriana and Traffic, on the other hand, wear their theses as the topcoat; they are dramatized op-ed pieces. They supply additional characters seemingly as an economy of scale: the more characters, the cheaper each one is to produce. (Here I ought to confess that, in spite of these flaws, I greatly enjoyed each of these films.)

The ‘social pressures’ – and the economic ones – that determine large aspects of everyone’s life are often a subtler presence in fiction or film than they are in The Wire. You can illustrate such pressures without taking as your subject the inner life of an entire American city.

‘The Name of the Game’, a story by Colm Tóibín, from his brilliant collection Mothers and Sons, is one example of the quieter shades in which an author can paint the pressures of society and money within an essentially human, as opposed to a schematic, tale.

Nancy, whose husband has just died, faces overwhelming financial obligations. Her husband, George, was not the exemplary figure the rest of the town believed him to be: he died a debtor, leaving his wife and two children to clean up after him. Nancy decides, on the advice of a partly shady figure called Birds Eye, to open a chip shop in the town square; she acquires a license to sell alcohol; she keeps late hours. Trash and noise gather at the door of her business. Her son proves to be an enthusiastic entrepreneur, but others in town make a pariah of her; she loses friends. Nancy stays the course: the other townspeople are not responsible for meeting her obligations, and so they haven’t a right to condemn her.

And that’s about it. The story is fifty pages long and it holds you pinned until you finish it. It does this in part because Tóibín’s prose is lean and devastatingly precise, but also because Nancy is such a compelling figure: she is unsentimental and determined, and for necessary reasons she builds a small fort of lies around herself and her new shop. The suspense arises not from wondering when the lies will crumble but from worrying that she will seal herself in so tightly that she will no longer be able to breathe.

It is a story whose subject is money: its absence is a poison that seeps immediately into Nancy’s life upon her husband’s death; shadows of debt fill the corners of her mind. Everything in her life becomes a mathematical calculation, becomes an angle; because she owes money (and opening a shop puts her deeper into debt, of course) she goes to sleep with figures in her mind and feels the demands of debt as a nausea in her bones.

Yet the reader doesn’t think, as he reads, ‘This is a story about social pressures.’ He thinks, rather, ‘This is a story about Nancy, and I am interested in what happens to Nancy.’ Our struggles in life may often – may always – carry with them a socioeconomic aspect, but what more often compels the reader of fiction is the character of the individual human being who must face those struggles.

Stewart O’Nan is another writer who comes to mind. The characters from his last two novels in particular – Last Night at the Lobster and Songs for the Missing – exist in an exact economic milieu, and O’Nan is concerned with nothing if not the ways in which larger societal forces levy a tax on individual lives. (The epigraph for the former work comes from a quarterly report for Red Lobster’s parent company.) But his novels would not have the same great force – they are terrific, subtle, moving works – without the finely drawn characters: the flurries of tense interaction between coworkers in Last Night; and the tightening and slackening tempos of family life in Songs.

The ‘distinction’ Walter Benn Michaels wants to make, according to the Observer article, ‘divides novels that are about individual characters from novels that aim for something “more ambitious.”’ I can think of no more radically isolated individual characters than those of Waiting for Godot (nor a work of art more ‘ambitious’), and yet if there is one play about social pressures, that is it. In other words, I fail to see the distinction. Good novels often involve the kind of aspects Michaels mentions, but those novels are good because they succeed at whatever they have set out to do, not because they adhere to a specific school of thought, or provide some social benefit. Fiction doesn’t have a job. (A pair of tautologies: good art is good because it is good, and bad art is bad because it is bad.) Manifestos on what art ought to look like should always be received skeptically: there is a reason so many lie unread upon the wastes of history.

I happen to enjoy fictions with an element of the socioeconomic pressures Michaels mentions; I think The Wire is terrific. And neither Summer Hours nor the fiction of Tóibín and O’Nan – to give only a small sample – would be exactly the successful works of art they are without the awareness, at the edges of their plots, of money, globalization, and social anxiety. But good fiction is about the ideas with which we animate ourselves, whatever those may be. I cannot possibly know how Tóibín approached his story, or Assayas his film, but I have a feeling that, very early in the gestation of their respective ideas, Assayas began to imagine the conversations between three siblings, and Tóibín began to imagine a woman whose husband had just died.

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~ by mackenz on June 15, 2009.

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