Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A “novel-bashing trend”

The rhetorical strategy of the Jewish anti-Zionist philosopher in The Finkler Question—a philosopher who is far too lucid to be modeled upon Judith Butler—is “to quote whoever said something that supported her, and then to ignore them when they said something different.”

Some such strategy was adopted by the memoirist Darin Strauss, who quoted me in the New York Times Book Review to support his claim that a “novel-bashing trend” has made its way among us. Discussing Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which he calls a “legitimate masterpiece” (as if its parentage were in doubt), Strauss groused that “its reception in the press has been too muted.” (Remove the mutes from your trumpets, boys!) To prove his point, he cited the piece for Commentary in which I wailed unhappily about “the Worst National Book Award list since the Last National Book Award list.”

To be fair, Strauss quoted only the title to my piece, which mitigates his intellectual irresponsibility somewhat by shoving it into the closet of laziness. Apparently it would have required more energy than Strauss is capable of summoning—that is, a five-minute Google search—to learn that I also described Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, another of his “legitimate masterpieces,” as perhaps the “best book yet” by the novelist who “may end up to be the star of his literary generation after all.”

Longtime readers of this blog know just how ridiculous it is to enroll me among the novel-bashers. My worry is that I have raised a tabernacle at the opposite extreme. (I defend the reading of fiction here.) Like Cynthia Ozick, I revere the novel as “the holy vessel of imagination.” I don’t bash it often enough!

What really angers me, though, is how my criticisms of Fountain’s Iraq war novel are swallowed up, in Strauss’s quoting of me, by an extraliterary protest over literary prizes. I was unusual among the critics in disliking Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The novel received a great deal of praise, despite what Strauss says. Writing in Slate, Jacob Silverman used almost his exact words, calling the novel a “near-masterpiece.” (Perhaps that’s what he means by a muted reception, lowering the voice to mutter “near-masterpiece” when the critics should really be blaring “legitimate masterpiece.”)

But Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a masterpiece if and only if a masterpiece is derivative. Fountain’s debt to Joseph Heller, his comic hyperbole, his basic view that war is absurd, is obvious. A derivative novel can be great fun to read, and Fountain’s novel is great fun, but it can’t be a great novel. Erase Catch-22 from literary history and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk could not have been written.

I rarely use the word masterpiece, and then typically to designate Mr Sammler’s Planet as Bellow’s masterpiece or Bread Givers as Anzia Yezierska’s. If I were asked, though, to supply at least one necessary and sufficient condition of a literary masterpiece—a masterpiece of literature and not merely of a novelist’s oeuvre—I would have to say that a legitimate masterpiece solves a longstanding literary problem, breaks a literary logjam, punches a literary kind out of the corner in which it has been boxed.

In Leopards in the Temple, the great critic Morris Dickstein argues that, since the Second World War, the American war novel has been divided between two starkly different approaches—either the proletarian (The Naked and the Dead, From Here to Eternity) or the absurdist (Catch-22, Mother Night). The war novel “seemed at first to look backward toward the social fiction of the Depression,” Dickstein observes, but by the early ’sixties it “also looked forward to the black humor, the anguished sense of alienation of the postwar years.” Novels of the Vietnam war were split along similar lines. Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato is heavily indebted to Catch-22 in structure, theme, and tone; some of the lesser known novels of the war, including James Webb’s Fields of Fire and William Turner Huggett’s almost completely forgotten Body Count, focus on the social life of the military’s working class—the infantry platoon.

The great novel of the Iraq war has yet to be written. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not it. By the time American novelists came to write about the Iraq war, they had been reduced to mannerism. They fooled around with the techniques they had inherited, but they failed to hammer into shape a distinctive idiom for the wars of the 21st century. Even the proletarian mode had largely disappeared from the repertoire of American novelists. Absurdism was, for them, the only possible response to war. (And if an absurdist novel of the Iraq war is what you want, David Abrams’s Fobbit is twice as crazy and three times as funny as Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.)

From this perspective, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, while a much lesser novel of the Iraq War, is also much braver. Powers stumbled upon the promising idea of adapting an untried Jamesian voice to the novel of combat. The result, however, is painful to read. (I quote a particularly embarrassing passage here.) But at least Powers sought to knock down the rigid conventions of the American war novel. Fountain’s may be the better novel, and it is enjoyable to read, but it is ultimately a “genre novel.” And if it comes to that, I’d prefer a novel like Peter Cameron’s Coral Glynn, which gladly embraces the restrictive conventions of a tightly fit genre in order to create something entirely unexpected.

I’m no fan of the Iraq war novels that have been published so far, but this makes me a “novel-basher” only if you ignore my reasons why—only, that is, if you are not a legitimate critic, but a rah-rah literary booster like Darin Strauss.

Update: In the original version of the above, I used feminine pronouns to refer to Darin Strauss, because I did not know any better about him. I have apologized to him on Twitter, and I’d like to repeat my apology here. (I too have been mistaken for a woman in print, although there is something about the mistake that is strangely flattering.) At all events, I had to change nothing else in changing the pronouns above. You’ll notice what little difference the changes made to my argument.