From this essay, mostly about White Teeth by Zadie Smith…
In James Wood’s critical essay for The New Republic he argues vociferously that contemporary novels have ‘hardened’ into a genre that he calls the “‘big ambitious novel,'” one characterized by a love of ‘perpetual motion’ and information. These novels, in Wood’s argument, do not develop realistic characters (although they seem in his mind to be attempting novelistic realism) but instead ‘mistake’ the ‘existence of vitality’ for the ‘drama of vitality.’
Wood sees this turn as a flaw, one that he exposes by noting how ‘morganatic’ (I had to look that word up) these novels’ relationships are with those of the guru of realism, Dickens. He worries about cartoonish characters that, nonetheless, are not as capable as Micawber of feeling real emotions, and thereby invoking these emotions in readers. The dizzying pace of the perpetual motion machine leads to flawed texts that ‘shout a spectacle’ rather than ‘dare picture a life,’ plunging frenetically into worlds that bounce back and forth between coincidence and absurdity in ways that never allow us as readers to sympathy for characters, or indeed to feel sympathy with characters.
This contrast puts me in mind of the ways that games have been criticized for their inability to develop believable characters. Even narrative games that feel literary pay short shrift to character development, and some of the best games of all time – I am looking at you, Shadows of the Colossus – pay very little attention to developing believable characters by instead focusing on broad(er) questions of identity.
I do not like to think that novels are moving towards games in this sense, and as someone who enjoyed nearly every novel on Wood’s list of the damned I started to wonder why these novels feel (to me) as if they work. My guess is that perhaps what is happening in this turn to the ‘big ambitious novel’ in which novelists essentially brag about how much they know about the world as it exists is what I think happens in games: players flesh out their characters (and not just they role play) in a co-constructive fashion with game designers. In fact, the presence (in games) of an entire ecosystem of supporting structures – wikis with game-playing advice that often describes non-playing characters, fan fiction forums that encourage fans to add stories of their own devise to the game’s world, back stories that can even be added after the game’s launch by developers – lends credence to the notion that developers and designers *rely* on their audience to bring characters to life. The vast amount of work that goes into developing a game perhaps by definition means that game designers lack the skill or time or requisite knowledge of human behavior to create realistic or even believable characters, and, knowing that, game designers provide platforms by which players can fill this lack themselves.
If this is true, then it brings up another entire realm of issues about the use of volunteers as capital resources in a digital, hypothetically knowledge-based society, many of which Dave Eggers tackles in The Circle. But those questions need not trouble novelists, who work in a much different system of intellectual labor, one that still values (?) the products of individual brilliance. Instead, perhaps what Wood is identifying is a way in which these contemporary novels that strive for big, ambitious status utilize the knowledge in their readers’ heads – about genre, about relationships, about ‘tragedy and anguish’ (two key elements of character development according to Wood) – to build believable characters.
If hysterical realism has a canon, then Donald Bartheleme’s “The Indian Uprising” might be an odd . The story hypothetically describe a Native American attack on a small white outpost in the western United States, and yet it utilizes a fascinating variety of historical data, cultural references, and pulp fiction conventions to provide an extended metaphor about language, war, or mental instability. The narrator tells us that “strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole” (717), a statement that might well provide a rallying cry for the hysterical realist movement that Wood posits.
Of the many innovative techniques that Barthelme uses, the one that fits most closely with Wood’s critique is his use of strings of objects that at first make sense, only gradually descending into absurd caricatures of the meta-object that began the list. The second paragraph of the story offers the first of these lists:
Not believing a hurried, careless, and exaggerated report of the number of casualties in the outer districts where trees, lamps, swans had been reduced to clear fields of fire we issued entrenching tools to those who seemed trustworthy and turned the heavy-weapons companies so that we could not be surprised from that direction. (712)
The list of “trees, lamps, swans,” embedded in what seem a sentence pulled straight from a Western pulp fiction story, provides a glimpse of one of Barthelme’s methods, prompting the reader to question the sanity of the narrator while simultaneously wonder where this story is going.
The madness gets more outrageous on the next page:
Red men in waves like people scattering in a square startled by something tragic or a sudden, loud noise accumulated against the barricades we had made of window dummies, silk, thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colors), wine in demijohns, and robes. I analyzed the composition of the barricade nearest me and found two ashtrays, ceramic, one dark brown and one dark brown iwth an orange blur at the lip; a tin frying pan, two-litre bottles of red wine, three-quarter-sherry; a hollow-core door in birch veneer on black wrought-iron legs, a blanket, red-orange with faint blue stripes; a red pillow and a blue pillow; a woven straw wastebasket; a Yugoslavian carved flute, wood, dark brown; and other itmes. I decided I knew nothing.
These lists call into play all kinds of consumer products from the golden age of consumer consumption, and while the reader of Westerns might be a bit skeptical of the usefulness of silk in a barricade or the need to know the color and composition of a hollow-core door, other readers might well use these lists as clues that the narrator is not what he seems.