Trump the Political Jester, David Foster Wallace the Cultural Prophet

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Serious Question: Has anyone happened to notice any uncanny similarities between some of the depictions of early 21st century America in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and, well, early 21st century America?

Now, I know that Infinite Jest is more or less the novel that gets name-dropped if one wants to sound bookish and brainy, and David Foster Wallace has more or less ascended to the top spot of “celebrity writer dudes,” belovedly dead, whose work doesn’t get read so much as referenced. Just about every grad student in modern English literature probably claims to have read Infinite Jest, even if many of them are more like the guy in this video. But when it comes down to it, Wallace strikes a lot of chords with the American culture of the 1990s in which he wrote Infinite Jest, chords which have indeed resonated up until the present, even to the point of eerie though totally coincidental prophecy.

I’m thinking here of the fact that the geo-political disarray of Infinite Jest‘s North America (reconfigured as the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N., assuredly an allusion to onanism; see GEN 38) features, among other surreal elements, an American president who is described as a “sterile-toupee-wearing promotor and entertainment bigwig” — effectively a Donald J. Trump character.

The similarities go deeper than this, though. Taking a look at the section titled 8 NOVEMBER YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT GAUDEAMUS IGITUR  (somewhere around pg. 380, depending on the version), we can see that Wallace forecasted several elements of the current American political climate quite presciently. The Trump-like president in question, one Johnny Gentle, does more than wear a wig. He’s also something of a nationalist, proclaiming to the American people: “Let us go forth, to pretty much any nation we might feel like calling, that the past has been torched by a new and millennial generation of Americans.” Ok, the futurist burial of the past sounds decidedly un-Trump-ish, who peddles more than his fair share of reactionary nostalgia, as we all know from his campaign slogan. But this ‘America first, everyone else second’ mentality materializes in sci-fi levels of strangeness in the novel, as the reigning U.S. Commander in Chief strong-arms Mexico and Canada’s heads of state into forming the above-mentioned North American union, pushes for the annexation of Quebec, and orders the dislocation of toxic waste via catapult into a region of the former American Northeast dubbed “the Great Concavity.”

But perhaps the more on-point characterization of this bizarro president, who Wallace almost certainly never would have believed possible, consists in his ostentatious behavior and the milieu it signifies. Infinite Jest‘s Johnny Gentle wins the honors of “first U.S. President ever to swing his microphone around by the cord during his Inauguration speech”, “first U.S. President ever to say shit publicly, shuddering”, and “[f]irst U.S. President ever to use boss as an adjective.” Trump’s lowbrow rhetoric might come to mind here, but so too does the shift in political attitude in the so-called ‘post-factual’ free-for-all of fake news and Twitter tantrums. This attitude, too, comes to expression in the 8 NOVEMBER section of Infinite Jest. There, Wallace describes a narrative of anti-politics and ideological polarization similar to that of the 2016 election campaign, though not without significant differences. In Wallace’s 21st century America, Johnny Gentle leads a third party surge more akin to Britain’s UKIP, Germany’s AfD, or France’s Front National than to Trump’s grassroots takeover of the G.O.P. Yet, Gentle’s movement is also not simply far right. Instead, it’s far everything. Wallace characterizes it as

a strange-seeming but politically prescient annular agnation of ultra-right jingoist hunt-deer-with-automatic-weapons types and far-left macrobiotic Save-the-Ozone, -Rain-Forests, -Whales, -Spotted-Owl-and-High-pH-Waterways ponytailed granola crunchers, a surreal union of both Rush L.– and Hillary R.C.– disillusioned fringes that drew mainstream-media guffaws at their first Convention

One might draw parallels, then, between Gentle’s political fringe mobilizations and both Trump’s and Sanders’ viral campaigns, though the leftish throngs in Gentle’s America, true to Wallace’s own 90s vibes, gravitate more toward environmentalist rather than social justice causes. At any rate, this fictional political movement, more of a breed of anti-politics masquerading in the garments of political process, advances with alarming parallels to the 2016 fury. Though hardly taken seriously at first, the movement “suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reactionary voter-spasm that made the U.W.S.A. and LaRouchers and Libertarians chew their hands in envy as the Dems and G.O.P.s stood on either side watching dumbly, like doubles partners who each think the other’s surely got it…” Sound familiar?

Ultimately, though, the real insight into contemporary American political life probably comes not from the circumstantial parallels between Gentle and Trump’s campaigns. Rather, what we should probably have our eyes on is the political climate in general according to Wallace’s forecast. Wallace continues, writing of how “the two established mainstream parties split open along tired  philosophical lines in a dark time when all landfills got full and all grapes were raisins […].” Political polarization is hard to escape in a two-party state, but Wallace’s insight actually goes further than this. Not only does his fiction foresee a culture of political division, it also envisions a country of internalized, self-destructive fear, as “the U.S. sort of turned on itself and its own philosophical fatigue and hideous wastes with spasm of panicked rage that in retrospect seems possible only in a time of geopolitical supremacy and consequent silence, the loss of any external Menace to hate and fear.”

The lack of external threat, of course, does not totally ring true with current news coverage of Russian hackers and Jihadist terror. But Wallace’s Infinite Jest is on to something in diagnosing American culture’s internal fragmentation. In the novel, this plays out in narrative strands of addiction, hyper-self-consciousness, over-drilled and over-schooled youth, and, of course, mindless entertainment. Rather than amusing ourselves with unreal coverage of a Jester president, we might be wise to turn back to the sort of fiction that Wallace wrote, which places the burden of analysis on us, both to make sense of the writing in front of us and to understand the connections, and occasional predictions, the words reflect back at our culture.

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Poetry Post-Trump #5

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Election Day was a Commodity….

Election day was a commodity
_that pundits peddled to the frenzied mob;
_the press was bent on the vulgarity
_of Trump’s campaign, though that was not their job.
For weeks the so-called analysts would spin
_sales-pitch interpretations which forecast
_that Hillary would do the Donald in
_and drive a stake through his campaign at last.
The race for office had become a game
_and we were played till play had made us sick
_Small wonder, then, that 8 November came
_upon a wearied body politic!
We cast our farewells from the ballot box
and steered our ship of state into the rocks.

—Marwan

Harrison, 2016

Poetry Post-Trump #3

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“Can’t We Fire the Firer?”

“nothing to fear but fear itself”:
–presidential words from a white man’s maw–
And yet the whirl’d are calling for help
deliverance from a “racist’s” jaw.

“We’ll make it great. We’ll build a wall.”:
–caterwauling claims in a campaign’s craze–
What truth is Left when half of all
the suffrage’d practice civil malaise?

Chau-xeno-&-misogyny
make sheep and straw of a thick-wigged rogue.
White hoods burning roods — far worse a thought
from a nation’s brutal ancestry.

What will we tell the next of kin
of such demo-gogue-otocracy?
Shall we protest? Enact unrest?
Or resurrect fair old polity?

Why bother? Stack high the kindling:
KEEP CALM AND TWITTER ON

—Charles, 17 Nov. 2016

Poetry Post-Trump #2

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Io non mori’ e non rimasi vivo;
Pensa oggimai per te, s’hai fior d’ingegno
Qual io divenni, d’uno e d’ alter privo

                   Inferno XXXIV, 22-4

Election Night
.
I went to sleep. It was too soon to tell,
Although we all had somewhat of a clue:
Some early signs had shown that Clinton fell,
.
And yet we hoped the signs were just not true.
We watched with horror and disdain and prayed
That every state in red would turn to blue,
.
But Donald’s lead was strong: it never swayed
And we felt hopeless, though we hoped in vain.
I went to sleep. I felt sick, chilled, afraid.
.
Our last-ditch shot at hope prolonged the pain:
Defeat’s warm fingers brushed against my face
And I was blush in disbelief: The reign
Of progress ended in a caucus race.

.

—Marwan, 2016

Poetry Post-Trump

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Deutscher Tag nach Seiner Wahl

.

A cold German morning;

The day had just broken

So, too, the news —

But who would have known

Under the cover of

Teutonic clouds and

crowds, die es gar nicht juckt?

.

I walked into the valley

shaken yet in calm.

Thoughts streamed like Abgas, then,

from the tailpipes of cars:

Mercedes, VWs, und 

Citybuses passing

by Friedrich-Ebert Platz.

.

Certainly, one could say,

Threadbare comparisons

to demagogues of old

were mere Übertreibung,

and crassness never did

draw blood. But who could say

What would become when hypotheticals reify into declarations?

.

To learn what becomes of

Hate reflected back on

the marginalizers

become marginalized

and the subsequent, dark

hypocrisy that brews

unrecognized in shatter-

ed Amerika…

.

—Charles, 9 Nov. 2016, Heidelberg

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Friedrich-Ebert Platz, Heidelberg, Germany. The square, located on the south side of the city, is named after the first President of Germany, who was born in Heidelberg and held high office from 1919 until 1925.

Autobiographical Fiction and “Writing What You Know”

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One of the most vital questions in fiction, and in any art for that matter, asks simply enough: How does the created object of art relate to actual lived experience? This inquiry can be spun in countless directions. Should art mimic reality, or should it represent some “higher reality”? Should an artist seek to represent her own experiences, or should she seek to move beyond them through artistic creation? Why do people spend time creating art (and here what I really mean by “creating art” is writing fiction) when pressing problems in the “real world,” like environmental destruction and genocide or simply earning a decent income, go unsolved?

These are all worthwhile aesthetic questions, but what I want to focus on in this aligns most closely with the second spin-off question, which broadly put is a question about the autobiographical side of fiction writing: why does so much fiction draw so directly on the lived experience of its author? And is it advisable for an author to write only about experiences that are very near to her own? In other words, should writers just write what they know?

In the span of a few months, I heard three lectures by three fairly distinguished fiction writers (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Fr. Uwen Akpan, and Junot Díaz) who each offered differing answers to the question of autobiographical fiction. In what follows, I will compare their answers and offer my own assessment of the influence of autobiography on the artistic process. Ultimately, I will conclude that “writing what you know” makes sense for writing Realist fiction, especially for novices, but that the guideline actually ends up being pretty limiting when taken as an artistic mantra.

Autobiographical Fiction: A Definition

To start, what do I mean by autobiographical fiction? Allow me to define through a list of examples that first spurred my thinking about the above question: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. All three are regarded as great works of literature, and all three portray protagonists who are, to various degrees, fictional versions of their authors. Mr. Henry of A Farewell to Arms is an American who drives an ambulance in Italy during the First World War and has a penchant for drinking vermouth, just like Hemingway himself. Heart of Darkness depicts a voyage up the Congo River during the colonial period, a voyage eerily similar to one in which Conrad took part. The Young Man of Portrait, Stephen Dedalus, attends Jesuit boarding schools, lurks around brothels, and longs to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, just as Joyce did. These novels are all artistic representation of their creators’ lives, and very, very near ones at that.

Now, if you simply take an account of your life (or someone else’s, but usually yours) and switch out the names of the characters and a place or two, you create what is known as a roman à clef, French for a “novel with a key.” The original impetus behind novels like these was the ability to discuss political and social controversy through the protective veil of fiction, which could be converted back to real situations through a “key.” That is, if readers knew Mr. Z was King Louis in real life, they could understand the novel for the political commentary that it was. But this isn’t really my concern. What I’m wondering is, why do so many great works of fiction—and just about every new novel I come across—borrow so directly from the life of its author?

The most straightforward answer is that writing about your own life just comes more easily than inventing characters and circumstances with which you as a writer are unfamiliar. In the essay “On Autobiographical Fiction,” the contemporary American novelist Jonathan Franzen claims that “In thirty years, I don’t think I’ve published more than twenty or thirty pages of scenes drawn directly from real-life events that I participated in.”1 He also claims that “most novels” are not autobiographical in the sense of basing themselves around a character who “closely resembles the author and experiences many of the same scenes that the author experienced in real life” (128). Yet, he also relays how he turned to autobiography when he hit a dry spell while writing a manuscript that would become The Corrections, one of his most critically acclaimed novels to date. After several false starts with an invented protagonist, Franzen began writing about “two older characters, Enid and Alfred Lambert, who’d appeared out of nowhere and were not unlike my parents,” and compared to the pages he’d drafted for the initial protagonist, “The chapters about them poured out of me quickly” (134). This actually makes quite a bit of sense, since the Enid and Alfred characters didn’t materialize from “out of nowhere.” Rather, they came right out of Franzen’s own memories—like Franzen’s own father, Alfred works for a railroad and lives in a small Midwestern town. Elsewhere in the essay, Franzen mentions the truism that ‘we all have one good novel in us,’ namely, the story of our own lives—our autobiography.

But does this mean that autobiographical fiction is just lazy fiction, a sort of crutch we turn to when we have nothing else to say? I do think it depends. My next contention, though, is that many writers, both novices and award-winners, write autobiographical fiction not because it’s necessarily easier, but because they feel that other material more foreign to their own direct experience is simply verboten, ill-advised, OFF LIMITS.

Adichie and Dìaz on “Writing What You Know”

Back in March I attended a lecture by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is probably 18749just as well known for her nonfiction as her fiction: her slim treatise We Should All Be Feminists (and accompanying TEDx talk) probably won her even more notoriety than did her second novel Half of a Yellow Sun which tracks the lives of various characters during the Nigerian civil war. Adichie covered a lot of ground in her talk, from her experience growing up in Nigeria to her fondness for natural hair styling, but what she didn’t talk about a whole lot, oddly enough, was the substance of her fiction. She said plenty about the fiction writing process, about how necessary it was for her, but she didn’t say a whole lot about her novels.

Surprise: her novels are pretty autobiographical. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus is narrated by a Nigerian girl named Kambili whose tribal family comes from Abba, the same village where Adichie has her roots, and who visits the university town of Nsakka, where Adichie grew up (Adichie’s father, however, was never as openly abusive (or rich) as the doctrinaire disciplinarian who raises Kambili). Half of a Yellow Sun is not so much autobiographical as biographical, but her third novel Americanah follows a Nigerian woman who travels to America to attend university, which Adichie herself did.

However, when Adichie was asked about whether she would consider branching out to write novels not set in Nigeria, she expressed hesitations about creating characters who would not resemble the Nigerian neighbors and relatives of her youth because one must, after all, write what one knows.

Two months later, I found myself listening to the Dominican-American author Junot Dìaz pass on similar advice. He spoke about the importance of representing the community he came from, which features just as prominently in his fiction as southern Nigeria does in Adichie’s novels. His journey toward becoming a writer centered on his life in a poor Dominican neighborhood in New Jersey which both hindered and fueled his artistic dreams:

For me, it became a matter of life and death if I could find a way to present the complexity of my community, as an artist, as a writer, if only because, by highlighting that complexity, I could start to make some sort of sense.”

Since Dìaz presented the artist’s role as essentially community oriented, it makes perfect sense from his perspective that art should grow out of an autobiographic influence. Hence, just about every story Dìaz junot_wao_coverhas written centers on Dominican or Dominican-American characters, often young men or boys chasing after women. He was asked about and directly acknowledged the close resemblance between him and his character Yunior, who narrates the novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and recurs in many of his short stories. But as with any fictional construction, Yunior is still disconnected from reality. Dìaz described his nearly autobiographical protagonist as an “imposter,” like someone who “lives in your room and uses all your shit” but who is not quite you.

I rather like this model of autobiographical fiction as involving “imposters,” characters who take on aspects of real people, but who exist as part of some separate scheme. What this scheme is meant to do, what its goals are, can vary. For Adichie and Dìaz, the scheme functions to bear witness to communities, or more specifically in Dìaz’s case, to confront communities with the darkest, most complex parts of themselves. But I don’t think this is the only scheme in town, and I don’t know that it is the best one for encountering the most complex parts of oneself.

Fr. Uwen Akpan on the Other Side of Autobiographical Fiction

In between hearing these two heralded authors, both the recipients of MacArthur Fellowships (Adichie in 2008 and Dìaz in 2012), I heard a lecture from a Catholic priest and lesser known author, Fr. Uwen Akpan, who also happens to be from Nigeria. His collection of short stories Say You’re One of Them was chosen for the Oprah bookclub reading list and won the PEN Open Book Award, the same award which Adichie notched with Half of a Yellow Sun two years earlier.

Fr. Akpan read at a podium, huddled over a pile of unbound printer paper, a manuscript of a story in progress. The plot involved a Nigerian man’s journey to New York City and subsequent bout with bedbugs. The story, Fr. Akpan revealed at the end, was autobiographical—he had himself suffered from bedbugs in a dingy New York tenement. But what Fr. Akpan had to say afterward about the reception of his decidedly un-autobiographical short story collection really stuck with me.

Say You’re One of Them takes five stories from five different African countries, many of which are cover_oprahbeyond Fr. Akpan’s purview. He writes from the perspective of an AIDS orphan, for example, an experience entirely foreign to him. Though he has been criticized for attempting to embody experiences beyond his own, he made what I found to be a very convincing defense of his fictional reaching. Don Cheadle, he noted, didn’t get any flack for playing the role of a Rwandan genocide survivor despite the absolute foreignness of that experience for him, so why should artists of other sorts be chastised for exploring experience not their own, provided they can do so convincingly? If you can only write about your own experience, he seemed to say, your art becomes bogged down in yourself and fails to identify and direct attention toward other moments of suffering and importance.

Now, there are clearly difference between acting and fiction writing, and there are clearly forms of writing-beyond-one’s-experiences that could be misconstrued as cultural appropriation. But I do feel more inclined toward Fr. Akpan’s position on the question of autobiographical fiction. I do feel that limiting one’s writing to what one has experiences can easily become insular and unchallenging. Needless to say, both Adichie and Dìaz explore quite a range of terrain within the constraints of writing what they know. But since writing fiction, of all things, is defined by its inventiveness and creative capacity, writers should unmoor themselves from the familiarity of their own experiences and take risks in imagining characters and experiences far different from their own. Isn’t that what we look for as readers of fiction, after all?

A Concluding Note on Realism

While listening to an interview with David Foster Wallace on To The Best of Our Knowledge, I considered that part of the limitation with autobiographical fiction might have to do with the constraints of Realist fiction as a style. All three writers I heard talk, as well as Jonathan Franzen, write what might broadly be described as Realist fiction, fiction which is realistic, which often features real places and attempts to mirror lived experience. Here’s Wallace on the matter:

I don’t know many writers who don’t think of themselves as realists, in terms of trying to convey the way stuff tastes and feels to you. A lot of stuff that’s like capital R Realism just seems to me somewhat hokey because obviously Realism is an illusion of realism and the idea that small, banal details are somehow more real or authentic than large or strange details always seemed to me just a little bit crude.”

Now, if you’re trying to write fiction that captures the “small, banal details” of lived experience, it would be quite advantageous to have actually lived the experiences you’re writing about. One can’t simply write convincing Realist fiction about Ukrainian mining villages unless one has lived there (or done very thorough research). But Wallace challenges the supremacy of such a writing style (the kind you’d find in just about every Best Selling novel), arguing that even the most realistic fiction remains an illusion of reality. Just as autobiographical fiction isn’t the only game in town, neither is Realist fiction.

Wallace himself, though, did start with seemingly autobiographical fiction in his novel The Broom of the System which is set partly on the campus of his alma mater Amherst College and which he called “a coded autobio” in his 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery. Infinite Jest borrows from his childhood obsession with tennis and his time in Boston-area halfway house, but there’s plenty of departure from his own life as well (and certainly from the Realist style). By the time we get to his unfinished novel The Pale King, Wallace is writing about tax examiners in Peoria, a town he’d never lived in (although he claims fictitiously in the “Author’s Forward” that the novel is a memoir from his time working for the IRS). This is all to say that, although much fiction is autobiographical, it need not be.

In Franzen’s essay “On Autobiographical Fiction,” the largely Realist writer mentions Kafka—a writer far from the Realist camp—as a writer who is, in his own way, deeply autobiographical.

Kafka’s work, which grows out of the nighttime dreamworld in Kafka’s brain, is more autobiographical than any realistic retelling of his daytime experience at the office or with his family or with a prostitute could have been. […] And work like Kafka’s, which seems to proceed directly from dream, is therefore an exceptionally pure form of autobiography. There’s an important paradox here that I would like to stress: the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life. The deeper the writer digs for meaning, the more the random particulars of the writer’s life become impediments to deliberate dreaming.” (129)

Essentially, Franzen is reimagining autobiographical fiction as writing that delves deepest into one’s own struggles and desires rather than reproducing the experiences one has had firsthand. Thus, pure autobiographical fiction in the case of Kafka wouldn’t detail the life of an insurance salesman like Kafka—those are just “the random particulars.” Instead, Kafka’s fiction is at its most autobiographical when it uncovers the crushing guilt and inadequacy he held inside himself (and this correspondence between an author’s work and his innermost self is far harder for an audience to discern). Confronting us with ourselves is just what fiction should do, as Kafka wrote in a letter to Oskar Pollak, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”2

By Franzen’s model, then, most works of fiction that we think of as autobiographical (because they’re set in their authors’ hometowns, or because the protagonists are also fiction writers) are only superficially autobiographical. Pure autobiographical fiction, by one author’s reckoning, happens when authors hack away at the crust of ordinary experience to encounter the feelings below the surface.

For my own part, the fiction that I have written which has been best received is that which least resembles my day to day experience. Maybe this is just because my own life makes for rather uninteresting fiction. Those more successful stories of mine did, however, grapple with the same philosophical and personal problems that I found myself contemplating.

Perhaps, then, the formulation “write what you know” requires some revisiting. When it comes to Realist fiction, writing from your experiences helps conjure up a believable reality of “small, banal details.” But writing only from your experiences might prohibit you from showing what you really know, that is, what you are harboring in that “frozen sea” within you. To get at that, you might be advised not to “write what you know,” but to write, to dream, and to forge away, in order to know.

This is fiction as self-discovery rather than self-presentation. Fiction which confronts the self, rather than being about the self.

1Jonathan Franzen, Farther Away (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2012), 128.

2In the original German:“Ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns.” 27. Januar 1904

Jonathan Safran Foer and the “Look at Me” Novel; or, Something Is Illuminated, I Guess, But Why All the Graphic Nudity?

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A few years ago, a trusted literary friend suggested that I read a certain novel, which she likened to “adrenaline, hope, fear and pain mixed into one strange ocean, each feeling coming in waves.” In her emotional deluge, she forgot to mention the title of the book at first. It was none other than Everything Is Illuminated, the debut novel of Jonathan Safran Foer, the writer who would go on to produce the wildly popular 9/11 coming-of-age novel/picture book Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (now a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks). 18foer-web-blog480

In this post, I want to discuss Foer as a writer, largely in light of his premiere novel Everything Is Illuminated. As I see it, Foer belongs to a coterie of ‘literary’ authors, such as Colum McCann with his own 9/11 novel Let the Great World Spin and Haruki Murakami (in translation), who harness a dazzling array of formal conceits, precocious narrators, and sensational, often tear-jerking events to evoke “one strange ocean” of feelings in their readers. They engage in a writerly mode which Nigerian critic C. Namwali Serpell dubs “flippancy” for the way it keeps readers flipping through pages by treating grave issues (terrorist attacks, drug use, sexual liaisons) in a rather flippant manner, which is “intensely cathartic but ethically suspect.1 I, for one, just call it sentimentality. From all the waves of feelings it forces me to feel, I can’t help but feel a little seasick because of it.

Let me get one thing straight from the start: I admire Foer’s writing. I really do. The same goes for McCann’s and Murakami’s. Foer’s best quality as a writer, and, indeed, what first drew the attention of his Princeton writing professor Joyce Carol Oates, is his sheer creative energy.2 Who would think to spin a tale about a three-hundred-year-old Jewish village AND have a one-sided correspondence between the author and a Ukrainian guy who writes in stilted English AND create a modern quest for a missing family lineage ALL in the same slim novel?

But then the moments of saccharine sensuality or pretentious philosophizing or hackneyed sentiments intervene. Let’s just look at one case example before we proceed. In the chapter “Falling in Love, 1791-1803,” which is among the worst sections for this kind of emotional button-pushing, we hear about the developing relationship between Yankel and the young foundling he is raising:

But more than that, no unloving words were ever spoken, and everything was held up as another small piece of proof that it can be this way, it doesn’t have to be that way; if there is no love in the world, we will make a new world, and we will give it heavy walls, and we will furnish it with soft red interiors, from the inside out, and give it a knocker the resonates like a diamond falling to a jeweler’s felt so that we should never hear it. Love me, because love doesn’t exist, and I have tried everything that does. (82)

Now, does any of that really make any sense? Starting with the incredibly vague bifurcation “it can be this way, it doesn’t have to be that way,” the cloying remarks slide from the third person into the first person plural with the declaration “we will make a new world,” which again comes off as a tad vague despite the nice ornamental imagery. A knocker that makes no sound? Wait, why? Then, the sequence culminates in the most non-sensical feature, a sudden, self-referentially incoherent imperative, implicitly directed at ‘you’ (the reader?), with a coy first person pronoun thrown into the mix. How are you meant to love if love doesn’t exist? And how has this conclusion been reached? And why the superfluity of absolute words, like “everything” and “never”?

I’ll tell you why—because it’s provocative and emotive. The book is talking to you after all. Foer performs a sly shift toward the reader with the turn of a pronoun or two, focusing first on Yankel’s love, then ‘our’ love, and finally ‘your’ love. The passage might be purposefully non-sensical to demonstrate something about the confusion of love, but then again, passages like this abound throughout the novel, leading me to think that such sentimentality is a stylistic choice rather than a singular demonstration of one character’s feelings. And this is what peeves me, or “spleens” me, to use the favorite word of the Ukrainian narrator, about Foer’s writing: it makes such creative and formal headway, only to puncture the vessel’s hull with this sappy, sentimental crap.everything_is_illuminated-copy

You can see why I take issue with it.

In the remainder of this post, though, I want to explore the formal devices that I find particularly inspiring and even illuminating in Foer’s first novel. Next, I will discuss the less savory features of Foer’s fiction in reference to what David Foster Wallace calls “cleveritis” in his famed 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery. Finally, I want to interpret one scene—in the chapter titled “Illumination”—which brings the strands of sentimentality and formal inventiveness together to illuminate something or another about contemporary fiction.

Talmudic Interpretations, Stilted English

The first thing to mention about Everything Is Illuminated (aside from the fact that Foer netted a record breaking $500,000 advance for this out-of-nowhere first novel) is its form. Two features stick out in particular.

The first is the threefold structure of the narrative, which consists of the recollections of Alexander Perchov (the Ukrainian narrator previously mentioned) concerning his time as translator and tour guide for one Jonathan Safran Foer (“an ingenious Jew” [3]), Jonathan’s reimagined family history based on his travels in Ukraine, and Alexander’s letters to Jonathan about their two developing narratives. As different as this novel is from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer’s second novel actually operates on a markedly similar threefold structure comprised of Oskar’s narrative, his grandfather’s letters to “my unborn son,” and his grandmother’s journals. An astute reader will notice even more similarities between the two seemingly disparate novels (writing, for example, seems to end up on all kinds of wonky surfaces in both novels: newsprint on babies, lipstick on ceilings, secret messages on trees, ink on hands, etc. etc.). Switching between diverse sub-narratives likely adds to the “flippancy” factor of Foer’s narrative by keeping things interesting. This is by no means limited to Foer’s fiction, of course. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for example, takes perspective switching up several more notches with its variety of styles and character arcs. The shame is that, in both of Foer’s novels, one of the sub-narratives is unbearably sentimental, crude, and a tad showy, as I will discuss in the subsequent section.

For now, though, I want to think about what makes the threefold structure of Everything Is Illuminated particularly compelling. First of all, each of the narratives builds off a different form of writing. Ostensibly, Alexander’s recollections are non-fiction narrative, as he describes his actual experience leading Jonathan across Ukraine. Meanwhile, Jonathan’s story is a fusion of historical fiction, building off his travels and facts about the war, and folklore, with its bizarre imaginings of life in the Trachimbrod shtetl from 1791 to 1941. The letters from Alexander, then, serve as an editorial commentary and interpretation of these narratives, not unlike the Jewish Talmud, which explicates the Hebrew scriptures. The point here is that portions of the text interpret and respond to each other in a way that unveils the uncertainties and creative jumps made in the writing process. In Alex’s first letter, for example, he calls out Jonathan for using “not truthful names” (25) for Ukrainian characters in his first chapter, while at the same time responding to Jonathan’s criticisms about using the word “Negroes” and even admitting that he lied about “how I am tall. I though it might appear superior if I was tall” (24). The criticism runs both ways, but it is also self-reflexive and unsolicited on Alex’s part. At other points, Alex questions the less believable or outright inane contrivances in Jonathan’s folktales, such as when he asks: “Why do women love you grandfather because of his dead arm?” (179). These letters thereby serve a highly redemptive purpose for the more sentimental parts of the narrative—the text points out some of its own crap, which lets the reader know that at least some of the crap is intentionally crappy.

As if the dialogue amid sub-narratives of the novel wasn’t enough, the summation of these sub-narratives also seems to be in dialogue with the writing process itself, specifically the process of writing fiction. It is, in effect, metafictional. The lynchpin of this novel’s metafiction comes in the inclusion of “Jonathan Safran Foer,” the novel’s author, as a character in the novel itself. From the start, the relation between fiction and non-fiction is thereby called into question: sure, this is a novel, but the author appears as a sort of avatar in the world he is creating. Moreover, Foer is drawing on real events, namely the Holocaust, and his own real-life trip to a shtetl called Trochenbrod, just a few vowels shy of the novel’s “Trachimbrod.” Within the novel, the Jonathan character also draws from “factual” documents within the world of the text, such as The Book of Past Occurrences which he nabs from an old Ukrainian ladyJonathan includes a slightly altered excerpt about colorfully painted hands in one of his sections and renames the source text The Book of Antecedents. What we get, then, is a whole series of embellishments, inventions, edits and re-writings that looks something like this:

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But it’s not just a mess. All of this fictionalization connects to one of the central thematic thrusts of the novel: the absolute loss of life and history perpetrated by the Holocaust and attempts to fill the lacunae and uncertainty left in the absence. Katrin Amian writes in a chapter on Foer’s novel that these “highly speculative narrative enterprises” serve to “reflect Jonathan’s genuinely creative—and unmistakably fictional—attempts to (re-)construct his family’s history and imagine what life my have been like for his Jewish-Ukrainian predecessors.”3 But this reconstruction, like any act of fiction, necessitates the creation of certain “not-truths,” as Alex remarks, “We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes? The both of us?” (179). The correspondence between the fictionalizing content of the novel—concerned as it is with reinvention of history—and the fictional form of the novel—with its manifold revisions, excerpts, and uncertainties—may justify lauding Everything Is Illuminated as a “brilliant” book, as several reviewers have.

This brings me to the second sparkling feature of Foer’s first novel, namely, its use of non-standard English, which occurs almost entirely in Alex’s sections. For the most part, Alex’s strange English consists of overwrought verbs (“manufacture” instead of make, “exhibit” instead of show, “masticate” for chew) and repetitive, thesaurus-sourced adjectives (“premium,” “petite,” “effervescent”), as well as a few odd constructions and not-quite-right phrases. Take, for example, the opening of Alex’s first letter:

I hanker for this letter to be good. Like you know, I am not first rate with English. In Russian my ideas are asserted abnormally well, but my second tongue is not so premium. I undertaked to input the things you counseled me to, and I fatigued the thesaurus you presented me, as you counseled me to, when my words appeared to petite, or not befitting. (23)

Much of the language is not grammatically incorrect per se (except for the occasional substitution of a highfalutin intransitive verb for a simple transitive one, as in “fatigued” for “worn out” in the passage above). Nor does it involve that many malapropisms, since Alex rarely confuses words (except for a few gaffes, such as saying he feelsoblongated to eat” [26]). Really, the stilted language is a representation of over-the-top language use, committed more frequently by novice writers than foreign language learners. Still, the foreignness of Alex’s English does much to illuminate what we take for granted as native speakers, seen especially in the misunderstandings it generates. See, for instance, this exchange between Alex and Jonathan: “Do most young people have impressive cars in America? Lotus Esprit V8 Twin Turbos?” “Not really. I don’t. I have a real piece-of-shit Toyota.” “It is brown?” “No, it’s an expression.” “How can your car be an expression?” (71) See what he did there? First, Alex misunderstands the idiom “piece-of-shit,” then Jonathan responds with an ambiguous pronoun which Alex thinks refers to the car rather than the idiom “piece-of-shit.” The scene is comic, but it’s also instructive from a linguistic standpoint.

Foer’s representation of non-standard English, however, is not without its inconsistencies. Language, of course, does not function purely mechanistically, so we shouldn’t expect, for instance, that Alex will always substitute “manufacture” for make. But there are moments that feel forced, such as when Alex suddenly crosses out “understanded” and replaces it with the correct participle “understood” (157). This would be fine, except that it’s the only time such a cross-out occurs in his manuscripts. Similarly, Alex asks clarifying questions about his language use abruptly within an isolated paragraph late in the book: “It became dark—darker?—as we pursued her […]. We went past a miniature ocean—a lake?—and…” (183). Although Alex asks how to use words elsewhere in his writing, these flickering questions appear only in this paragraph, and for no particular reason, as if Foer decided, what the hell, in this paragraph he’ll start questioning individual words.

It’s moments like these that reveal a strain on part of the writer. He tries to add yet another formal quirk, to push his language yet another step forward, only to exhibit that such moves are superfluous, even showy.

Look at Me”: Sentimentality and Pretension in the Fight Against Cleveritis

While Everything Is Illuminated does so much of interest structurally and linguistically, it strives too far to impress and emote throughout. Large stretches of the Jonathan narrative serve as a case in point. As previously mentioned, the chapter “Falling in Love, 1791-1803” and other similarly named sections overflow with emotional excess that doesn’t seem to do much more than toy with and tantalize readers. We are told, for example, that the foundling Brod was “a genius of sadness, immersing herself in it, separating its numerous strands, appreciated its subtle nuances. She was a prism through which sadness could be divided into its infinite spectrum” (78). Well, that’s a pretty metaphor and all, but is there any explanation for why Brod is sad? She doesn’t even know she’s an orphan. And an “infinite spectrum”—isn’t that a bit much?

Perhaps more perturbing than the heart-pricking turns, though, are the over-sexed liaisons that occur so frequently in Jonathan’s narrative, again for little to no purpose plot- or theme-wise. The famed Trachimbrod day, originally a moment of compelling indeterminacy in a story about the opacity of historical events (did Trachim fall into the river of didn’t he?), surges into a bonanza of sexed-up revelry in later chapters, as we are told that acts of fornication emit “a coital radiance that takes generations to pour like honey through the darkness of astronaut’s eyes” (95). Readers might find the introduction of the astronaut imagery a bit baffling, if not irrelevant—a sort of literary flourish that says, “Hey, I can jump between time periods and spatial settings seamlessly.” Next thing we know, Jonathan’s grandfather is getting sweaty with the sister of his bride-to-be—along with a host of other mistresses and lovers when he is as young as ten. The worst of these is probably the scene in the theatre, in which Foer suddenly breaks into a spree of narrative written like a play, a device likely taken straight from the Circe chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. To make matters worse, the showy form tracks the grandfather’s effortless seduction of a gypsy girl, which climaxes just as the theatre band tops off their crescendo—a rather worn cliché.

Many of these pornographic stunts could be rubbed off as simple smut to please the crowds, that is, if they weren’t so formally pretentious to boot. Here’s where the axe comes crashing down for Foer’s prose: it yearns to strut its ingenuity and pass off old experimental hijinx as cutting edge while pandering to base sentiments. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ratchets such displays up a notch with its graphic representations, such as photos, marginalia, and blank pages, many of which are about as new as Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, published in … 1759. Indeed, Serpell writes that Foer’s second novel “borrows its formal verve and its emotional energy from the past.”4 Here, Serpell has the Modernists in mind. But while Joyce and Woolf add formal features that accomplished something unique—see the dreamy, slurred words of Finnegans Wake for an extreme example—Foer’s graphic “innovations” are largely superfluous in the points they make, leading Serpell to characterize them as “largely redundant” and “mechanistic rather than purposive.”5 Do we really need to see a picture of hands with “YES” and “NO” written on them right after they’ve been described?

Everything Is Illuminated is a less frequent perpetrator of such gimmicks. Yet, the sequence of encyclopedia entries near the novel’s end, capped off with a whole page-and-a-half of the repeated phrase “We are writing…” (212-13) pushes toward pretension or even “cleveritis.”

In David Foster Wallace’s interview with Larry McCaffery for a 1993 edition of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, the up-and-coming young writer introduced the term cleveritis with the following diagnosis:

cleveritis—you know, the dreaded grad-school syndrome of like “Watch me use seventeen different points of view in this scene of a guy eating a Saltine.” The real point of that shit is “Like me because I’m clever”—which of course is itself derived from commercial art’s axiom about audience-affection determining art’s value.

While I’m not one to question the intention’s of fiction writers, there are moments in Foer’s novels that edge closer to the “look at me” strain of experimental writing. What can said more certainly, though, is that Foer’s fiction, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close above all, has gained popularity largely because of “audience-affection.” A quick glance at Amazon.com book reviews will show how many reviews appreciated the waves of emotion the novel sent their way. According to Serpell, many of her students report crying at the end of the 9/11 bestseller when she teaches it. And then there’s my friend, gushing about the “one strange ocean of feeling” that Foer’s writing evokes.

Does such sentimentality devalue Foer’s works? Perhaps. The real drawback, though, comes from the way such overwrought moments distract from the formal and thematic concerns of the novel—its treatment of the reconstructed memory and the writing process. In my final section, I would like to interpret a closing passage of Everything Is Illuminated that bears witness to the seriousness of Foer as a writer despite the sentimental overtones.

A Polyphony of Voices and the Ghosts of the Holocaust

Alex’s narrative concludes with a chapter titled “Illumination,” a dramatic reveal toward which the story has been progressing ever since mentioning the import of what Alex’s grandfather did “during the war” (74). At this juncture, those wishing to avoid SPOILERS should read no further.

Effectively, the scene collapses into a ultra-Modernist stream-of-consciousness lacking punctuation and even spacing between words at times. The sequence of events is simple enough and even reiterates parts of an earlier Holocaust scene: Alex’s grandfather is rounded up along with the rest of his Ukrainian village, including his wife, newborn son, and timid Jewish friend Herschel. As the merciless Nazi officers force the citizens to identify the Jews among them, Alex’s grandfather is faced with risking his own life and that of his family or condemning his dearest friend to a horrific death. Relaying the impossibility of this circumstance decades latter, he struggles to explain: “a father is always responsible for his son and I am I and Iamresponsible not for Herschel but for my son because I held him with somuchforcethatIcried because I loved him so much that I madeloveimpossible and I am sorry […]” (252). At first, the compression and repetition of words seems to represent only the grandfather’s fear in that dire moment in 1941. However, the trembling voice belongs not just to the past, but to the present as well. This narrative, after all, has been transcribed by Alex, not his grandfather, after listening to his confession. So, at the very least, the trembling voice evokes the still-present-fear of a man lamenting an impossible choice. But Foer takes this shtick further.

In the subsequent effusion of words, Alex continues his transcription toward a universal culpability:

it is you who must forgive me he said these things to us and Jonathan where do we go now what do we do with what we know Grandfather said that I am I but this could not be true the truth is that I also pointedatHerschel and I also said heisaJew and I will tell you that you also pointedatHerschel and you also said heisaJew and more than that Grandfather also pointedatme and said heisaJew and you also pointedathim and said heisaJew and your grandmother and Little Igor and we all pointedateachother so what is it he should have done hewouldhavebeenafooltodoanythingelse but is it forgiveable what what he did canheeverbeforgiven for his finger for whathisfingerdid for whathepointed to and didnotpointto for whathetouchedinhislife and whathedidnottouch he is stillguilty I am I am Iam IamI? (252)

In a mode that blends form (stream-of-consciousness) and content (collective guilt) together, Alex’s description of his grandfather’s fear becomes his own fear, as he calls out to “Jonathan,” and the “I” that referred to his grandfather earlier shifts over to himself, for “the truth is that I also pointedatHerschel” and, indeed “you also pointedatHerschel.” Unlike the first passage I cited far above, the shift in pronouns is obviously purposeful, representing the universality of blame and condemnation for all those associated with the Holocaust’s atrocities, down through the generations. Maybe some of the run-together words speak to an excess here, and maybe the explosion of feeling on Alex’s parts comes off as exaggerated. But these are Alex’s feelings, rooted in his character, building off his grandfather’s experiences. His feelings actually make sense in the context and tie into the novel’s themes. But best of all, they don’t try to trick me into feeling anything. They don’t recite some tender, through threadbare, phrase or conjure up some impressive but unnecessary image.

If only more contemporary fiction could forego the cheap sex and literary parlor tricks for this kind of concentrated prose. That would be enough illumination for me.

1 C. Namwali Serpell, Seven Modes of Uncertainty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 277.

2 In an interview with Robert Birnbaum, Foer recalls that Oates identified energy as “that most important of writerly qualities” in a note she wrote him after his freshman year.

3 Katrin Amian, Rethinking Postmodernism(s) (New York: Rodopi, 2008), 166.

4 Serpell, Seven Modes of Uncertainty, 269.

5 Serpell, Seven Modes of Uncertainty, 276, 277.

 

David Foster Wallace and Joshua Ferris on Office Work

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David Foster Wallace’s sprawling, painfully incomplete final work, The Pale King, and Joshua Ferris’s first novel, Then We Came to the End, share more than just a publisher in Little, Brown. The two works also situate themselves in a common milieu through their exploration of office drudgery. Wallace’s The Pale King takes place in an IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, in the 1980s, while Ferris’s Then We Came to an End moves ahead in time to an advertisement agency at the advent of a new millennium in nearby Chicago. Both novels—if The Pale King can be called a novel—flit in and out of the lives of various characters connected by their respective workplaces. They piece together narratives through water-cooler rumors and stories told over lunch breaks. They are fictions of the office, of the American working life.

However, Ferris and Wallace present visions of their corporate and bureaucratic worlds in markedly different styles and tones. Where Ferris has characters joke about misplaced roller chairs and pull pranks on one another, Wallace has characters writhe in boredom and contemplate suicide. Such a comic/tragic dichotomy, of course, is not entirely fair. Then We Came to an End contains obvious moments of misfortune (cancer, abductions, depression), and The Pale King is not without its humor (the banter in the stalled elevator in §19 comes to mind). But Wallace’s work is, without question, deeply serious. Its immense sentences wind into the minds and sorrows of its oddly named characters, from the hyper self-conscious David Cusk to the psychically disturbed Claude Sylvanshine. In the so-called AUTHOR’S FORWARD of §9, the faux David Foster Wallace, as narrator, claims that his whole account relays “something about dullness, information, and irrelevant complexity. About negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests of endless wastes.” Meanwhile, Ferris chooses a collective “we” to narrate his novel, a united cohort of copywriters and creative directors to The Pale King‘s isolated, bored crop of tax examiners. If Wallace’s writing mimics boredom, then Ferris’s embodies a kind of group gossip.

Owing partly to the unfinished status of Wallace’s novel-ish thing, the two works don’t allow for much easy comparison beyond some of these overarching features. It’s a flawed exercise from the start. Yet, I do think the overlaps are compelling. In particular, I want to highlight what I contend to be a direct borrowing between the two authors. Either that, or it’s some inexplicable coincidence.

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In §4 of The Pale King, Wallace includes an “excerpt” from the Peoria Journal Star newspaper about the heart attack death of an IRS worker that went unnoticed by his coworkers “for four days”:

Frederick Blumquist, 53, who had been employed as a tax return examiner with the agency for over thirty years, suffered a heart attack in the open-plan office he shared with twenty-five co-workers at the agency’s Regional Examination Center on Self-Storage Parkway. He quietly passed away last Tuesday at his desk, but nobody noticed until late Saturday evening when an office cleaner asked how the examiner could still be working in an office with all the lights off.

Compare this to the opening of the fifth chapter of Ferris’s novel, which describes how “A man working at an office much like ours had a heart attack at his desk, and for the rest of the day people passing by his workstation failed to notice.” An unnoticed office heart attack is one thing, but there’s more. According to the dispatch, the man “wasn’t discovered until four days later, when coworkers complained of a bad-fruit smell.”

Both employees die of heart attacks, relayed through articles within the text, and both are discovered four days later? Surely this isn’t sheer independent creativity.

Then We Came to End was first released in 2007 by that famed publisher of Girl with Curious Hair, Infinite Jest, and the rest of Wallace’s fiction. Wallace continued to work on The Pale King up until his death in September of 2008. Could he have come across Ferris’s book and adapted §4 from this passage?

It’s certainly possible. Ferris and Wallace had preexisted correspondence dating back to Ferris’s college days when he interviewed Wallace about Infinite Jest for the University of Iowa’s student newspaper, as Ferris recalled in an article for the Guardian. And seeing as how they shared a publisher, it seems likely that Wallace would have heard about the debut novel. Though Wallace began writing the manuscript that would become The Pale King as early as 1998, the sections came in fits and starts and were ordered not by Wallace himself, but by his editor Michael Pietsch, meaning that this early §4 could have been written much later. Let’s leave the borrowing at “deceptively probable” for now.

The similarity that matters in the end is the two authors’ sustained interest in the meaning of work. Ferris’s subsequent two novels, The Unnamed and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, center on the professions of their protagonists, a lawyer and a dentist, respectively. Wallace’s own portrayal of the working life may seem openly pessimistic, yet it also sanctifies office labor, as a Jesuit accounting professor declares in §22: “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Sure endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism.” 

Michael Chabon on the State of the Modern Short Story: Thoughts

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Michael Chabon, author of the best-selling young adult fiction Summerland and the somewhat recent collection of essays Maps and Legends

I recently picked up a copy of Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, a collection of essays from 2008 put out by McSweeney’s. The first essay in the collection is titled “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story.” Therein, the author of Summerland boils down literature to entertainment and “its suave henchman pleasure”, though he seeks to expand the definition of entertainment beyond “karaoke and Jägermeister, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, a Street Fighter machine grunting solipsistically in a corner of an ice-rink arcade” (13). For Chabon, entertainment, in regards to literature, ought to encompass “everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature” (14). In summary, Chabon thinks (fictional) literature is essentially based in entertainment which is essentially based in pleasure. Suddenly thoughts of Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text come to mind. I don’t quite buy this hedonistic formula. I don’t read for pleasure. I read to learn and discover. So I either have to reject Chabon’s reductive distillation of literature to entertainment and the pleasure it brings with it, or perhaps I just need to reevaluate what Chabon means by pleasure, which lies at the core of his definition of entertainment above.

For instance, maybe learning is pleasurable in some non-conventional way. I’m edging toward being convinced that reevaluation is in order when Chabon writes: “The original sense of the word ‘entertainment’ is a lovely one of mutual support through intertwining. . . It suggests a kind of midair transfer of strength, contact across a void, like the tangling of cable and steel between two lonely bridgeheads. I can’t think of a better approximation of the relation between reader and writer” (15). So, literary entertainment concerns itself more with resolving loneliness through interconnection. This idea has risen to prominence as a definition of the “aim” of literature proffered by Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace in the 1990s, “a way of connecting, on relatively safe middle ground, with another human being”, as Franzen noted in his informal remarks at Wallace’s memorial service.1 Though I’ll take “loneliness antidote” over “pleasure provider” as a definition of literature, I’m still not convinced that classics the likes of Moby Dick and Oliver Twist can be reduced to that either.

Chabon feels that this connective capacity of literature, through which good entertainment originally operated, has been compromised by the passivity of contemporary so-called “entertainment.” In response, Chabon calls for a renewal of the two-way process of entertainment. In particular, he identifies a need for more engaging, diverse entertainment in the realm of short stories, which he feels have shriveled to a dry, homogenous desert of “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story” (18). I have to admit a bit of confusion at this point—does Chabon want reader-writer interaction, those lonely bridge heads straining to connect, or does he just want variety and diversity of form when it comes to entertainment?

His subsequent discussion of genre suggests that the latter is the case. What Chabon finds entertaining is a variegated, multi-dimensional set of stories. He goes on to reference Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” in which the German Jew distinguishes between the fantastic “trading seaman [mariner, I would suggest as an alternative translation]” writers and the earthy, realistic “resident tiller of the soil” writers. In his love of diversity, Chabon finds this binary insufficient and forwards a whole new category for fiction’s finest—that of “tricksters”, those bewildering, pencil-wielding devils who toy with convention in a creative act of “play.” These writers explore the borderlands of intersection and interstice, speculating on how things meet. I’m surprised, though, that Chabon does not take the opportunity to connect (here a crucial word) the trickster’s preoccupation with connectivity back to the original definition of entertainment that he fetches from the linguistic graveyard back on page 15 of his essay. Could the trickster not only play in the borderlands but bring the reader in with him? Doing so, (however this might be conceived) might shock the reader out of the lull of contemporary entertainment-generated passivity. However, if such a task could be accomplished (and I think David Foster Wallace has come close in stories like “Good Old Neon”), I’ll still be left questioning whether connectivity, let alone pleasure, really is the point of literature anyway.

1More in line with Chabon’s account of literature, Franzen mentioned in a 2001 interview that “novels are about crossing the great gaps at the rather lonely center of one person to the rather lonely enter of another, but I’m not positive that’s a useful thing to do. It’s a pleasurable thing to do.” But will pleasure cut it when it comes to the task of the writer?