Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Psychology and lost legs

Yesterday Mark Athitakis offered some astute and provocative reflections on Chang-rae Lee’s massive new novel The Surrendered, which I have barely begun.

So far I like the novel—a lot more, apparently, than most other critics. James Wood, for example, concludes that it is “commendably ambitious, extremely well written, powerfully moving in places, and, alas, utterly conventional”—but only after unreeling some eighteen hundred words to complain about utter conventionality. As if this were the worst, the absolute worst, you could conclude of a novel.

Unfortunately, Athitakis is inclined to agree with Wood. The basic problem with The Surrendered, he says, is that Lee’s characters are “simple expressions of simple motivations.”

Although I have yet to finish the novel, I am tempted to rise to its defense—in large part because, in his characteristic rush to stir Lee’s book into his seething cauldron of erudition, Wood has misjudged it. (Wood is the most intelligent critic now writing, no doubt about it, but here as elsewhere in his criticism, he is more interested in arranging his own knowledge, in airing his own views, than in focusing attention on his author.)

Athitakis’s error is more generous, because at once less jaded and less self-important, but it is an error nonetheless. His remarks about Lee’s “characterization flaw” remind me of something that J. V. Cunningham once said:

To our modern question, What is Hamlet’s tragic flaw? or, In what way are we to construe his final death as issuing out of the depths of his personality? we answer: His tragic flaw is Claudius and Laertes. He was cold-bloodedly murdered by means of a contrived diabolical plot.The disdain for characters who are “simple expressions of simple motivations” is a mutation of the same modern virus. (Tellingly, Athitakis opens by quoting the psychotherapist-turned-novelist Amy Bloom.) The modern reader, thoroughly schooled in what Wood calls the “grammar” of modern realistic fiction, expects psychology instead of plot.

But what if The Surrendered is not a work of realistic fiction? What if Wood’s postmodern yearning for something a little more unconventional in beside the question? What if Lee is less concerned with psychology than with plot?

Athitakis finishes The Surrendered feeling as if, for four hundred pages, Lee has been “arguing for a world without legs.” But perhaps that is just exactly the case. Perhaps the complaints about utter conventionality (“alas”), or what Athitakis prefers to call Lee’s “simplistic noises,” have misled the critics to hear the wrong case, to miss altogether what Lee is saying about a “world without legs.”

After all, we modern and even postmodern readers are a product of what Philip Rieff liked to call a therapeutic culture. We want to know how a person goes on living after he has lost his legs. Lee is more interested in the world that wants to cut them off.


R. T. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D. G. Myers said...

In terms of literary theory, JVC is exactly right.

R. T. said...

Perhaps I incorrectly stated my opposition to Cunningham. To my mind, he errs when he becomes absorbed in the notion of "tragic flaw" since the term is incorrect; instead, "hamartia," as I understand it, has nothing to do with "flaw" but has everything to do with "error" (i.e., "missing the mark"), and Hamlet's error has much to do with underestimating others and not understanding himself (until too late). Hence, Cunningham's focus on "flaw" (which people see as a personality or character defect) is (IMHO) Cunningham's "error" (his "missing the mark").

Perhaps, though, I simply misunderstand your use of the quote out of context. To the extent that I have "missed the mark," I apologize. However, I stand by my notion, which I can only too briefly speak about here, that to speak of a "flaw" is wrong; hence, my assertion that Cunningham is wrong.

Anonymous said...

I read the same text with Jim in 1962 At Brandeis. And did my doctoral dissertation under his supervision, 1968. A great pleasure to read your notes from him; I could hear his voice. I was amused by your note on his remark about writing praise. He enjoyed my exercise in Skeltonics, "Homage to Bobby Doer." -Bill Barker