Three of the novels I have read in recent weeks have some grounding in the events of 9/11 and the stuff that’s happened since: Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies (in fact Auster’s book “deals with” current events only sporadically or obliquely). My responses to the three books were broadly similar, running the gamut from mildly disappointed to slightly unimpressed.
I was reading an article somewhere recently in which the observation was made that novelists traditionally have tended to set the events they write about at least a generation in the past. This is probably true, speaking, of course, of novels with a real-world or historical setting, and in which that setting impinges on the narrative in some specific way. It is easier to impose a narrative on events from a vantage point at several removes from them, that is, at the point when the raw material of the event has been to some extent processed and made into ‘history’.
Now, a lot has been written about the effect today’s media has on our perception of events, how 24 hour rolling news and up-to-the minute editorializing on the internet have mutated the notion of the ‘real event’ beyond all recognition, replacing objective reality with an ersatz, hyperreal version of the truth.
I don’t really want to write about any of that stuff. What I’m interested in is to what extent the setting of a novel in the immediate present or very recent past, more or less explicitly as a direct response to current events, is compatible or incompatible with the form of artistic expression we call novelistic discourse. Is this kind of immediacy ultimately detrimental to the aesthetic or stylistic economy of the novel that emerges? Can a novel written as a response to an event ever be successful as a novel? I don’t think I have ever read one that has been.
Novels have always been set in the past. La Princesse de Clèves, a contender in some people’s eyes for the title of First Modern Novel, is set in the previous century, and begins with a looong historico-realist (well, almost) description of court life in the reign of Henri II. Let’s see now, what else? Here are a few (leaving aside obviously ‘historical’ novels): Flaubert’s most political novel (which isn’t really about politics at all), L’Education sentimentale, is set a generation in the past, around the time when tragedy was busy happening for a second time as farce; the war in Tolstoy’s War and Peace was long over by the time he wrote it; Thomas Hardy plonked his characters in a fictionalized ‘Wessex’, but in a very real past – in The Mayor of Casterbridge (we are told in the opening sentence), it’s the first third of the nineteenth-century, (perhaps the most popular period setting for novels?); Proust kept banging on about a world already long gone by the time he wrote it, the space of one man’s lifetime: the present did not interest him much, except insofar as it shapes and is shaped by the past.
And it just so happens that one of the novels I was reading over roughly the same period of time as the three I mentioned above, Middlemarch, is set some forty years in the past. Middlemarch is a case in point. It illustrates the inextricable closeness of the relationship between setting and style. The recent-historical setting is not really used by Eliot as a platform for historical analysis. Even though the underpinning to the narrative is a real political event (the Reform Bill) and the political situation does, intermittently, shape the characters’ motives and actions in more or less obvious ways, the novel never threatens to become ‘about’ the event (despite what the blurb on the back cover of some editions would have you believe). This detachment suits Eliot’s worldly-wise observational style. The authorial persona is never too ‘involved’, never so close to the events and characters as to sacrifice that absolute clarity of vision that defines it.
Tacitus’s moralizing accounts of tyrannical rulers were coloured by his immediate experience of another, more recent tyrant. To what extent is his professional interest in the machinery of tyranny really just a reaction to the black years suffered under the emperor Domitian? Tacitus was not a novelist, of course, but the same pressures bear upon historiography as novels.
What, then, did I dislike about the three novels I mentioned above? I have no aversion to reading opinions about the state of the world, what happened yesterday, what’s happening today and what might happen tomorrow. I read journalism, cultural theory, editorials and polemics in the broadsheet newspapers and periodicals one likes to be seen reading in Starbucks (if one is a tosser). But the novel, I think, is not a form that easily accommodates current events – or opinions about current events, for that matter. Successful novels (I mean artistically successful) are never overtly polemical, never too theoretical, never too immediate or personal.
Though we no longer have to think of novels as totalities, fully realised worlds in which no element is otiose and all contributes to the perfection of the form, we retain the (perhaps outmoded) conviction that a novel should represent a unity, an aesthetic whole. I think that the intrusion of the present, in all its stupid, brute meaninglessness, fractures that unity irreparably. It is not only a problem of perspective – of our blindness towards outcomes distorting our view of things – it is a question of form. If vision is style (and it is: ‘Le style,’ wrote Flaubert (I think), ‘est une vision du monde.’), I might call this an astigmatism of form.
The most successful political novel I’ve read recently has been Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint. Why? Well, for one thing, it isn’t really a novel. It comes across at first as nothing more a balls-out polemic. But then, it strikes just the right balance between serious moralizing (in the best sense of the word) and taking the piss, both out of its targets and out of itself. None of the self-consciously earnest posturing we find in McEwan (and once or twice in Auster, at points where the characters suddenly – and in narrative terms, inexplicably – become a mouthpiece for the author’s anti-Bush rants), none of the knowing, affected sentimentality we get from Foer. There’s a refreshing honesty about the way Baker chose to engage with the current political scene – not by writing a novel, but by writing an amusing dramatized polemic and having the cheek to call it a novel. That honesty is not there in McEwan, Foer or Auster. Why? Because honesty has nothing to with the novel, and it is a mistake to try and make the novel do something it is not meant to do.