As I re-read The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, and various of Calvino’s novels, I started thinking (again) about what can be done with the structure of the novel. Pop music goes through various experimental phases (I just got done looking for a Wire song on Spotify, helping me realize again just how cyclical pop music is), and the cycles make sense from both a consumer and artistic standpoint. Marketing cycles need to be maintained, and even if the music is sublime (The Gun Club and “Sex Beat” comes to mind, or anything by the Beastie Boys), consumer tastes must be stoked and fed.
Novelists function on a different timeline, and the idea of trends doesn’t usually apply. A colleague of mine keeps looking for the current greatest American novelist, a title that I can’t get my mind around because there is so much amazing stuff being written. The list always includes DeLillo, Gass, Pynchon, Frantzen, maybe McCarthy, and seems an impossible call, a title that doesn’t even seem worth granting.
Besides, what the fuck is a novel these days? Here my love of science fiction (and other pulps, including fantasy and horror) gets in the way. Eco and Calvino’s novels are intricate, beautiful, draining, and haunting, qualities that to me seem to be everything a novelist should aspire to creating in their readers, and yet both are dramatically different in their execution, with Eco writing long, historically-dense, ultimately moral (or at least calls for straightforward attempts to live morally in a corrupt world) novels that I think mock the postmodernists who might well fall into these novels’ dense layers of meaning. Calvino writes short, beautiful, wildly imaginative texts that fall back in on themselves in their attention to the circles and mantras and choruses of repetition and subtle revision.
Neither set of novels meets the Victorian or even modernist paradigms. The subjects are pretty fucking outlandish, the possibilities keep getting cut off just when they seem set to soar off into utopian, near trans-humanist drivel, and the themes (such an old-fashioned word in and of itself) are take no prisoner in their focus on living humanly and morally. Those who view postmodernism as some sort of radical change in human relations might not find these approaches all that flattering, but then again I was never a real fan of postmodernism that left out the idea of helping us figure out how to live in community, anyways…
And back to Fiskadoro, by Denis Johnson. As I said, I get a wee bit defensive about scifi, but if Calvino and Eco are trying to construct worlds using language that pays homage (or, better yet, shows unabashed love for the world of the mind as represented by books and language) then Johnson (and perhaps Gibson and Piercy and Delaney) show us how that construction can stay contemporary and relevant in a post-postmodern world. Fiskadoro offers us a post-apocalyptic world that is unrecognizable, one that reveals just how alien it is on a sentence by sentence basis, showing us through the utterly alien combination of debased Spanish and English just different everything has become. (Debased is an unfair word here – I’m less concerned with some sort of essentialist notion of language and more with working, living, breathing language practice).Gibson, Piercy (in particular, with He, She, It) and Delaney all do something similar, something I hope to break down in the future.
So, as has become obvious for writers, I think, to push beyond the boundaries of canonical or high art or adult literature. Frantzen talks about science fiction in this interview, and his interactions with it are dead-on, methinks, except that he doesn’t talk about the ways in which science fiction offers new approaches to the very structure of the novel that have since become accepted (methinks) among more ‘serious’ writers.
I’m not even sure this dichotomy even exists among people who read a lot, although readers (at least as far as book sales show) still take the idea of genre fairly seriously. But I got yet another colleague who returned my copy of The Left Hand of Darkness (which is about as brilliant a take on gender as I can imagine) with a ‘hmm, interesting, even though I’m not a fan of science fiction’ comment that makes me a bit sad. Thus, I guess, this rant.