*(The last of these longer offerings before I sign off to commence a variety of birthday celebrations over the next few days. Links resume on on the later side Monday but your calls have been heard, and more of these longer musings will begin to appear.)
Reading The Great Fire shortly after Cloud Atlas convinced me, at last, that I’m old.
And you know, I’m basically OK with that.
The two books could not be more dissimilar. In many ways, it’s an apples to oranges comparison – but it’s precisely that underscoring of extremes that makes it telling and illuminating for me. It’s in the stark contrast of these two novels that I find my “readerly self” exposed and defined to me in ways that I’d only suspected until now.
If you haven’t read either book, let me tell you just a little bit about each one, enough at least for what follows to make some kind of sense.
Cloud Atlas, which was recently discussed here at considerable length, is something of a tour de force. David Mitchell shows a virtuosity of style, genre and voice as he weaves six distinct albeit related narratives in a book that’s the season’s literary thrill ride and a pre-emptive favorite to win the Booker (although I’m not convinced it will win). The book sets out at a bracing clip, accelerates to wham bang and never really stops for breath. It’s also an intricately allusive work, albeit with something of a parlor game feel – it’s all too easy to get caught up playing “Spot the literary and cultural references” and that risks becoming an end in itself.
The Great Fire is Shirley Hazzard’s first novel since The Transit of Venus in 1980. It’s already won the National Book Award and was longlisted for the Booker but did not advance to the shortlist. It’s a rich lush tale of friendship set in post World War II Asia, as two young men try to rebuild themselves in the aftermath of war. The book builds with a quiet, gradual intensity and is as sultry and lush as the Asian afternoons it often describes. Even as the book occasionally flies off into romantic fancy, it is steadfastly anchored in the ravages of a chaotic, smoldering, ruined world.
As I’ve said, one could not have picked two less similar books to read in succession, and although I was immensely entertained by Cloud Atlas, I suspect it will not linger in memory the way I believe The Great Fire will.
Why is that? The main reason has to do with the characters who populate these works. Hazzard’s protagonist Aldred Leith is alive to me in ways that the characters of Cloud Atlas (with the notable exception of Robert Frobisher) aren’t. Leith is a detailed, layered creature with a vivid interiority, albeit one that is gradually, almost leisurely peeled back. In contrast, the characters of Cloud Atlas are by and large caricatures – albeit in the best possible sense of that word, namely established quickly and boldly with broad, vivid strokes. But they don’t go deep enough, don’t achieve James Wood’s beloved Henry Jamesian quality of characters “free to contradict themselves without being corrected by the author, are free to make mistakes without fearing authorial judgment.” They don’t feel independently alive – they are often little more than Mitchell’s chess pieces.
I’ve challenged myself on my well-known devotion to Wood, wondering if I’ve merely embraced him because he’s brilliant, fashionable and authoritative. But I’ve decided that’s not the case. I think he speaks to and for a quality in literature that I am finding – with age – to be increasingly important. I’ve always lived in fear of being thought conservative in any fashion but I’m coming to the uneasy realization that I have some conservative literary tastes.
That troubles me on some fronts – I wonder what it says about my own critical acumen. I wonder to what extent it diminishes my worth as a “literary commentator” (such as I am). Though when I stop to point out all the young voices I enjoy and admire – Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, Aleksander Hemon, Andrew O’Hagan – I find it just sounds defensive, like my parents protesting that they’re hip because they like Billy Joel.
But the fact is that I find more and more that while I can enjoy and be entertained by a great deal of “young” fiction – if I may be indulged in the use of such an imprecise label – it’s the compensations of “older” fiction that speaks to me. I don’t find it coincidental that John Banville begins his not entirely flattering review of The Great Fire by saying that “Shirley Hazzard has a blithe disdain for postmodern pieties.” (This from an author who’s no postmodern slouch himself. It’s noteworthy that in her Q&A with the Washington Post, Hazzard lauded Banville as a novelist but said she didn’t think much of him as a critic.)
The fact is – and this, I realize, is where I tend to sound most cranky and, frankly, old – is that Mitchell and writers of his generation have, for better or worse, emerged from the crucible of MTV and the World Wide Web. It’s an age that seeks non-stop stimulus – the remote control (or the refresh key) always lies at hand to keep boredom at bay. And so a generation is conditioned to embrace this rapid response stimulus, the frenetic rush of information and events.
Now before some of my friends rush off to excommunicate me, let me add that this is not to criticize the way things are. It’s too simplistic to merely complain that people today have short attention spans; I don’t think that’s it. Rather they’ve been conditioned over time to process information differently, and it’s only natural that such differences should eventually be reflected in literature.
But the truth is I like things a little quieter, a little slower. I like to linger. I like to peer inside. I don’t necessarily mind books where nothing much happens; because in life, it’s often the case that nothing much happens. I find that for my taste – and it is not much more than a question of taste – I prefer the quiet truths. I was struck by Stephen Mitchelmore’s recent post on his splinters blog, where he said:
Is there anyone else who gets excited, instead, by very short novels that do not rely for effect on clincial mastery, faux-naivete, "very old-fashioned entertainment" and/or bad faith?
When I read that, I jumped up and down pointing at the screen, shouting, “Yes! Yes! Exactly!” (It’s worth pointing out that Banville closes his review of The Great Fire with these words: “Yet when the narrative leaves love to one side and concerns itself with depicting a world and a time in chaos, it rises to heights far, far above the barren plain where most of contemporary fiction makes its tiny maneuvers.”)
Still, these leanings trouble me. I often ask myself what I would have made of cubism when it first appeared. I’m a great devotee of Picasso and Braque today but I recognize that it’s with all the benefits of hindsight. Or would I have embraced Jackson Pollock forty years after cubism, or would I have derided him as Jack the Dripper? I like to think I would have recognized genius for what it was but I'm just not certain. (When I played in a rock band, I used to promise myself that my outlook would always stay young; that I’d one day be the sort of parent who knew and listened to the same music as my kids. Perhaps the fact that I played in a band that exclusively covered the Beatles should have been seen as something of red flag, but it’s hard to be heard above youthful intransigence.)
Perhaps these confessions will permanently hobble my street cred as a litblogger. But I like to think that I approach each book with an open mind and will continue to do so. The strangling To Be Read pile that plagues me represents what I think is a pretty diverse offering, ranging from the hip oddities of “Danuta de” Rhodes’ The Little White Car to postmodern challenges of Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers to the familiar comforts of the new Madame Bovary translation. So I suppose I should shut up now and get back to my reading.
See you all on the other side of forty …