Pop Culture vs. Wagner
The Parousians

Sunday Night Journal — October 15, 2006

What Happens

The other day I ran across a set of parodies of the contenders for England’s Booker prize. Although I’d never heard of any of the books or their authors, and thus had only a slight grasp of what was being satirized, I still found the parodies funny. Here’s a sample:

It is January, a dark Sunday in winter, and I sit with my mother and father at the kitchen table. “Don’t stare at me like that, John,” my mother says.

“Why not?”

“Because you are 11 years old and we are all very Irish.”

My father goes upstairs to drown the cats.

Recognizing here the broad outlines of a very widely-practised sort of contemporary fiction, I’m confirmed in my view that I needn’t bother with much of it.

Once upon a time, and for all I know even down to this very day, there was an approach to literary criticism which classified narrative works into a set of paradigmatic or mythic types: the Heroic, the Picaresque, and so forth. I don’t recall that there was a Stoic Resentful category, but modern fiction needs one. Most works in this category are variations of one basic narrative line which could be titled How They Ruined My Life (substituting His or Her as required). The protagonist is a miserable soul, fundamentally pure, sensitive, and good, but crushed and thwarted by a brutal and uncaring world. They are first of all the protagonist’s family, and then larger forces: capitalism, religion (or, more specifically, Christians, especially in American fiction), authority in general, ignorant people, insensitive people, people with bad taste, Republicans. I gather that in British fiction many of the authors are emigrants from one-time imperial colonies, so colonialism is a prominent object of their blame.

The protagonist’s chief role in this narrative is to suffer, more or less passively, but gracelessly, always drawing from and replenishing deep wells of resentment. Something of the attitude seems borrowed from Hemingway, or perhaps I should say inherited from his influence. Despite his famous remark about “grace under pressure,” I think his stoicism sometimes has one eye on the mirror, and the current practitioners of the Stoic Resentful narrative give the impression of practicing their poses. I have been dealt a terrible blow—please note the understated way in which I draw your attention to my courage in bearing it.

I know I’m painting with far too broad a brush here. I’m sure there is good fiction out there. But I haven’t read all of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Dickens or James (just to pick the first novelists who come to mind), and I don’t have time or inclination to read numerous variants of How They Ruined My Life in order to find those good novels. Whenever I do venture into contemporary fiction, as when I subscribed to Granta some years ago, I find enough confirmation of my prejudice to send me away again.

The question of why so many artists in the richest civilization the world has ever known are so morose and embittered is always interesting. Whatever the answer is, though, and whatever justification they may or may not have for their state of mind, I think it will in time be admitted that their work is deficient and unsatisfying as fiction because there is so little movement and resolution in it.

I remember from my truncated literary education some remarks by Matthew Arnold on this, something to the effect that a situation of static unhappiness is not a fit subject for drama (I think it was drama—the observation would apply equally to any form that requires a story). I think this is correct. The movement may be subtle, but movement there must be, and it must move toward an end. Our minds are made for stories: we want and expect a beginning, a middle, and an end, and we want the end to be a resolution of some sort. Not necessarily a happy ending, but a satisfactory answer to the questions posed by the action with which the story began, questions of intent and action and consequence that come down to: what will happen? how does it end? If the answer is “nothing much,” we aren’t pleased. We’ve wasted our time.

Are our minds made this way because the world is made this way, and our lives are themselves stories? Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it?

She ate the fruit. What will happen now?



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