Anna Burns, Milkman

MilkmanMilkman by Anna Burns

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I did not like twentieth century books because I did not like the twentieth century,” says the narrator of Anna Burns’s Milkman, the 2018 winner of the Man Booker prize. In one of the novel’s many knowing ironies, the joke is that she inhabits what is in many ways a quintessentially 20th-century novel, not only due to its nameless but discernible historical setting—a Catholic enclave in Belfast during the Troubles—but also in its form and theme.

None of which is to say that Milkman is not a 21st-century masterpiece: it very much is, the best contemporary novel I’ve read in years, a book I read not only with admiration but with gratitude. But since the problems of the 20th century are still with us, their literary solutions remain relevant.

Some critics don’t think so, however. Claire Armitstead frets in the Guardian that the Man Booker panel’s selection of so “boldly experimental” a novel will displease booksellers hoping for some lighter holiday fare, while Dwight Garner in the New York Times says the novel “slogs.”

Granted, such failures of reading are foretold by Milkman‘s literate heroine, called middle sister in this novel without names (more of which later). She describes the malicious gossip about her that circulates in what she calls “our totalitarian enclave” as “fast becoming a best-seller,” making an association between sensationalistic and easy-to-read fiction with viciousness in public life, whereas she incites the neighborhood’s talk by reading the classics as she walks.

In a late scene, the citizenry conspire to deny the reality of a quiet fistfight going on in their midst:

Being a conventional audience, however, used to chronological and traditional realism, the majority began to doubt that those men, indeed, were fighting at all.

Earlier, middle sister’s French class revolts against its assigned reading, because the text describes sky as something other than simply bleu. When the teacher leads the students to the window to show them all the myriad colors of the sunset, middle sister explains their objection to such poetic perception of reality’s complexity, granularity, and beauty:

It was the convention not to admit it, not to accept detail for this type of detail would mean choice and choice would mean responsibility and what if we failed in our responsibility?

This is “the subversiveness of a sunset”: a diurnal announcement of the world’s multifariousness and our duty to acknowledge it, if only to protect ourselves from the threats we see from the corner of our eye. Choice and responsibility are key to the novel, two elements that make it both timely and untimely.

Timely for #metoo reasons, as most reviewers observe: the novel’s plot concerns the teenaged heroine’s stalking by a middle-aged paramilitary nicknamed “Milkman” (because he drives a white van). Milkman never lays a hand on middle sister and never threatens her outright; he ruins her life, however, by his insinuations and his hovering presence, and by the gossip he inspires in the community, which comes to see her as at once loose-moralled and dangerously allied in what she calls her “intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district.”

Milkman is given over as much to middle sister’s reflections on what happened to her as on what happened itself. The text is a dense weave of first, second, and third thoughts crossing and re-crossing each other in a learned but vernacular voice; what emerges from this neo-modernist discursiveness is the narrator’s objection to the paranoid and patriarchal community’s denial that a kind of spiritual menace, a vampiric sucking of the soul, takes place via men’s encroachments on women, even or especially when these encroachments are not physical or visible.

She mocks male authority late in the novel for understanding only “rape” and “not rape,” whereas so much of what men do to women—the heroine is affronted not only by Milkman but also by another stalker she calls Somebody McSomebody and by her own brother-in-law—is no less an affront for not being cut-and-dried violent sexual coercion.

One reason, then, that we shouldn’t shirk our responsibilities to pay attention to the complexity of reality or of literature is that if we do we will miss subtle but devastating signs of domination and suffering. At times, the narrator even speaks a New Age language of “fixated energy,” or describes her feeling in Milkman’s presence as “the underside of an orgasm”: we cannot simply ignore what is unquantifiable. The narrator’s own journey is an inner one: she overcomes what she calls her own “jamais vu” to take responsibility for her own perceptions, just as she takes responsibility for her own complicity in the enclave’s small-mindedness.

This insistence on personal responsibility in the Troubles-era setting adds complexity—and untimeliness—to this narrative of attempted victimization and attempted resistance-through-perception. Middle sister’s enclave is totalitarian in the name of collective political struggle, and this fact casts doubt on collective political struggle as a solution to the very real problems of everyday life.

Middle sister grants that this resistance came about for undeniably valid reasons of “historical injustice” and that she too often feels the need for a buffer between her community and the British government; yet the anti-imperialist struggle has been degraded, she quotes her mother as saying, into an affair of “‘the hoodlum, the worldling, the careerist and the personal agenda,'” into mere gangsterism. Can problems caused by men with guns be solved by more men with guns?

The remedy for imperialist injustice cannot be swaggering brutal strong men and the women who love them, Burns suggests. The latter brings me to another untimely feature of Milkman: its its extension of responsibility for the political situation to women as well as men. Middle sister suggests that the cocky and often violent entitlement of what we call “toxic masculinity” is upheld in part by the moralism and backbiting of what we do not call “toxic femininity.” The novel’s satirical portrait of the paramilitaries’ female “groupies” as well as of the gossiping, hypocritical, judgmental “pious women” of the neighborhood is key to this theme.

Furthermore, when middle sister displays collective female agency in her narrative, she lauds it for its localism and aestheticism rather than for its ideological militancy. The totalitarian enclave’s small feminist group earns middle sister’s praise for their behavior during a demonstration, when they do not “harp on in a broad encyclopaedic fashion about injustice towards and trespasses against women, not just in the present day but all through the ages, using terminology such as ‘terminology,'” but rather speak “of homespun, personal, ordinary things.” Likewise, when middle sister is rescued by a phalanx of aggrieved women from the outright violence of Somebody McSomebody at the novel’s climax, she attributes their anger less to a politicized sense of female solidarity than to the fact that the violent predatory man “had no manners basically.”

Meanwhile, this is also a novel that contains a sentence all but forbidden today on forward-thinking social media: “Not all boys and men, though, were like that.” Burns goes out of her way to depict good men as well as bad women, and to depict men and women in states of moral flux, implicitly rejecting our own neo-totalitarian insistence that social structures and group identities determine or obviate individual moral choice.

In fact, the titular Milkman is juxtaposed in the novel with “real milkman,” who genuinely delivers the goods; while Milkman’s alibi for predation is that he protects the collective, for which violent ministrations he is celebrated as well as feared, real milkman’s actual everyday kindness is interpreted as eccentric lovelessness by the unobservant community. (Granted, though, the trope of milk links kindness and care, whether betrayed or genuine, with maternity and femininity.)

Milkman calls on men and women alike to refuse a life of physical and metaphysical violence. “[N]o one has the same personal history even if they have the same communal history,” middle sister observes, privileging individual experience over collective judgment. Without denying the reality of female or Irish Catholic oppression, the novel nevertheless stages a struggle that is less between men and women or between religions and nations, but between those who want to shut down individual human complexity (“my irreconcilables,” middle sister calls this inner condition) and those who do not.

All of the above is why I call Milkman a quintessential 20th-century novel. Just as I suggested that last year’s Man Booker winner, Lincoln in the Bardo, can be profitably read in the tradition of the American novel going back to Charlotte and Wieland, so we might see Milkman in the light of classic Irish fiction, from its high-spirited Joycean satire on all deadening social structures and forms of thought to the linguistic and narrative problems of telling one’s own life story as tragicomically disclosed by Beckett.

But we might see Milkman, with its stylistic defamiliarizations and its interior monologue, in the context of modernism more broadly: of Woolf’s plea to rescue the inner life from crudely materialistic fiction, of Lawrence’s claim that only the novelist (and not the philosopher or scientist or priest) can understand the human being in the round. Even more than this, Milkman reminds me of the late-20th-century novels the Booker used to short-list or award before it went populist and American, global-local novels that were fractured allegories against all forms of oppression by writers like Lessing, Gordimer, Coetzee, Ishiguro, and Atwood, novels that are, in Kundera’s words, “investigation[s] of human life in the trap the world has become.”

Why doesn’t Anna Burns label her setting or give any of her characters names? Because names and labels calcify meaning. They are the primordial form of “sky-is-blue” common sense that allows quotidian malignancy to go unnoticed and unchecked (“‘Semtex is normal,'” a complacent character tells middle sister, revealing how evil the normal may be). Names, labels, concepts, and preconceptions may prevent us from seeing ourselves and each other as we truly are: full of desires and irreconcilables that both the state and its renouncers find too unruly to accept.

A quintessential 20th-century literary theory holds that the purpose of art is to restore experience in its fullness to us:

And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. (Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”)

More than just defamiliarizing, middle sister is also consistently hilarious despite or because of the novel’s painful themes. Throughout Milkman, I literally LOLed time and again, as, just to give one instance, when middle-sister relays the telephonic customs of her paranoid and overly sensitive community:

Therefore, owing to phone etiquette, there was lots of ‘Bye’, ‘Bye’, ‘Good-bye, son-in-law’, ‘Good-bye, mother-in-law’, ‘Good-bye’, ‘Good-bye’, ‘Bye’, ‘Bye’ with each person’s ear still at the earpiece as they bent their body over, inching the receiver ever and ever closer on each goodbye to the rest of the phone. Eventually it would end up back on its hook with the human ear physically removed from it. There might be further insurance goodbyes even at this stage…

Her understated one-liners are good too: “‘Why?’ I accused.” The deadpan style of the novel, with its verbal and syntactical register both stylized and vernacular, gives a comic tone to the whole performance. Another quintessentially 20th-century literary theory holds that the novel is an inherently comic form destined to dissolve in laughter all the epic -isms:

The world of the epic is the national heroic past: it is a world of “beginnings” and “peak times” in the national history, a world of fathers and of founders of families, a world of “firsts” and bests. […] Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it. (Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel”)

That theorist also argues that novels are intrinsically dialogic: they dramatize ideological conflict without resolving it into propaganda. So it is in Milkman: middle sister at one point walks in on her exaggeratedly brilliant “wee sisters” (whose unlikely erudition is one of the novel’s comic glories) as they read English newspapers. Middle sister admonishes them for activities that may bring suspicion on the family, but the little girls reprove her in the name of the dialogic imagination: “‘Hush, older sisters,’ they said. ‘We’re busy. We’re trying to understand their point of view.'”

Totalitarianism, this novel’s named enemy, is not itself an ideology but a way of holding any ideology; whereas novelistic perception, especially that conveyed by experimental-comical fiction that makes us think and think again, induces contemplativeness and curiosity rather than closed-minded brutality. Think of Orwell quoting Chesterton on Dickens: “What he is out against is not this or that institution, but…’an expression on the human face.'”

Like such aforementioned practitioners as Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, and Lessing before her, Anna Burns has performed one of those periodic miraculous resuscitations of narrative prose, that perennially moribund art form. Under her hands, the novel—that “one bright book of life”—lives again.


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Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues

The Hero And the BluesThe Hero And the Blues by Albert Murray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Albert Murray is, as the fashion journalists say, having a moment. His collected non-fiction and fiction/poetry have now been canonized by the Library of America (in volumes published in 2016 and 2018, respectively) and his insights on race, American identity, music, and literature are now being rediscovered by a wider readership.

Murray, who lived from 1916 to 2013, was an African-American critic and novelist most active in the mid-twentieth century and known for his writing on what he called “the blues idiom” and its intersection with literary modernism. While I had heard Murray’s name before, I was first urged to read him by friend and correspondent Matthew St. Ville Hunte, whose brilliant review-essay on another Murray reissue—Murray Talks Music—is a good place to start learning about the writer:

Major critics do not achieve that status by possessing impeccable taste; it is not the highest calling to have the cleanest scoresheet. Indeed, there is something foppish and epicurean about striving to merely have all the right opinions at the right times. Instead, the major critics are the ones with the strong opinions, the ones who aren’t receptive to every new experience, the ones whose defiant inflexibility may bend the culture towards the future. Major critics have major themes, which ballast their writing and allow them to rise above merely being tastemaking. Just as Edmund Wilson had modernism and Trilling had the liberal imagination, Albert Murray had the blues idiom.

This is both a perfect and a somewhat odd moment for an Albert Murray revival. Odd because his ideas and emphases are almost anathema in this time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head? Three or four times in just the last week, I have run across laments about the almost Soviet gap between what liberal writers, educators, and media professionals feel they can say in public and what they are saying in private. (What they are saying in private, let me tell you, is nothing other than what I just said—we can say it; but we will have to overcome our own pusillanimity, which is admittedly a tall order!)

On the other hand, the popular adversaries of the above trends are not much less deadening in their reductions than the left-liberal literati; the “Intellectual Dark Web” leaves a lot to be desired, especially intellectually. Everything today decays into the worst kind of simplistic political argument, cable TV crossfire obsolesced because now generalized—it feels as if we are all talking heads in hell. What a perfect time, then, to read and re-read an intelligent, complex writer who argues for the importance of myth, archetype, and ritual, for the universality of art, without succumbing to the cruder polemics of a Jordan Peterson, a writer who insists upon the cultural autonomy and political independence of African-Americans in a register more alive to nuance and tragedy than Kanye West’s Twitter.

With the Library of American reprints, Murray’s entire oeuvre—some 2000 or 3000 pages—has come flooding back all at once; but as I am a slow, lazy reader, and as we all have to start somewhere, I have decided to focus on The Hero and the Blues, a short collection of three lectures published in 1973.[1] In this small but carefully composed book, Murray outlines his thesis that art’s function derives from ancient rituals meant to ensure community survival by embodying a hero’s story. Art shows us how our fictional surrogate, a Representative Man, is or is not adequate to the challenges posed by life. In this way, art demonstrates how we ourselves should live:

It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint. It is he who determines the extent and gravity of the current human predicament, who in effect discovers and describes the hidden elements of destruction, sounds the alarm, and even (in the process of defining “the villain”) designates the targets. It is the story teller working on his own terms as mythmaker (and by implication, as value maker), who defines the conflict, identifies the hero (which is to say the good man—perhaps better, the adequate man), and decides the outcome; and in doing so, he not only evokes the image of possibility, but also prefigures the contingencies of a happily balanced humanity and of the Great Good Place.

Such faith in art’s universality and individual- and community-shaping power—its precedence over all disciplines, particularly the social sciences—was of course unfashionable by the late twentieth century, and even more unfashionable when race (or gender or class) was at issue. Hailing the artist as primordial maker, Murray echoes the resounding modern manifestoes: Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” Emerson’s “The Poet,” Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Lawrence’s “Why the Novel Matters.” But his own context was the postmodern one that defined and still defines the human being as a “subject” circumscribed by social context, the creation of language rather than language’s shaper.

As a result, says Murray, fiction has sold its birthright to the sociologists and psychologists (dismissively metonymized by Murray as “Marx-Freud,” a hybrid monstrosity of shallow thinking). Novelists have given up tragedy, comedy, and farce for the lower art of melodrama: a story where narrowly material and social success is the goal rather than any broader confrontation with the nature of things. The higher modes of tragedy, comedy, and farce, by contrast, deal not just with the social context and material well-being emphasized by the protest writers; they put the hero into conflict with the essentials, Emerson’s “lords of life”—the tragic hero transcends them even as he is defeated by them, the comic hero overcomes them through the social regeneration of marriage, and the farcical hero evades them through nimble caprice amid absurdity[2].

Murray sees the hero of tragedy, comedy, and farce as defined by what he calls “cooperative antagonism”—that is, heroism is necessitated by adversity. This in turn implies that adversity is not to be avoided even if one could, that “safety”—to put it in contemporary pop-psychobureaucratic terms—is not to be sought as a political telos, especially because it is incompatible with freedom:

Heroism, which is, among other things, another word for self-reliance, is not only an indispensable prerequisite for productive citizenship in an open society; it also that without which no individual or community can remain free. Moreover, as no one interested in either the objectives of democratic institutions or the image of democratic man can ever afford to forget, the concept of free enterprise has as much to do with adventurous speculations and improvisations in general as with the swashbuckling economics of, say, the Robber Barons.

Here Murray comes into conflict with prevailing political thought about race in America on the left. (Though it should be said that this is not at all the main topic of the book, which is primarily an aesthetic treatise.) By capitulating to Marx-Freud and salvation through superior political management, black writers offer themselves up as objects of pity and study to white intellectuals, and in the meantime they give up their people’s own contribution to world culture: the blues tradition, whose improvisatory craft demonstrates how oppression may be transcended through artful ritual. As Hunte comments in his review:

The blues, as explained by Murray, are not the wails of lamentations, melancholic outpourings for the woebegone and disconsolate. Au contraire, the blues are intended to dispel such feelings, not wallow in them. The blues constitute a battle against chaos and entropy and in their broadest interpretation, lie at the heart of any artistic endeavor. But this is not merely art as entertainment, though it must certainly be that as well. This is art as ritualized survival technique.

Committed to the autonomy of art, Murray refuses to explain black expression as simply the result, the epiphenomenon, of slavery and oppression; he sees it, rather, as the intellectual and sensuous mastery by brilliant craftsmen of their adverse context. For this reason, he makes an extended comparison between the blues ensemble and the Elizabethan theater, and between Duke Ellington and Shakespeare: African-American art, like European art, is not a primitive eructation of the volk but the work of master crafters committed to improving the polis. Blues is thus the epitome of all true art, the heir of those rituals that assembled themselves into the epic from which all later music and narrative derives. Murray goes so far as to recommend that black experience become the paradigm of American experience in general, that all American artists become black blues artists—not as cultural appropriators, mind you, but as fellow crafters who rightly recognize the genius after which they ought to pattern themselves if they want to overcome their own troubles. The writing of Marx-Freud, by contrast (he singles out Wright and the later Baldwin; in our own day, he might mention Coates and Rankine),

concerns itself not with the ironies and ambiguities of self-improvement and self-extension, not with the evaluation of the individual as protagonist, but rather with representing a world of collective victims whose survival and betterment depend not upon self-determination but upon a change of heart in their antagonists who thereupon will cease being villains and become patrons of social welfare!

The title notwithstanding, there is surprisingly little about the blues per se in this book. Much of it is rather a reading of two of Murray’s favorite modern writers, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann, both of whom he sees as modeling heroic fiction. His enthusiastic discussion of Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers as the depiction of a nimbly exilic hero rather than a Moses bound for the Promised Land will make any reader realize that they should go beyond Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain with Mann, while his praise of Hemingway makes that writer’s seeming outdatedness itself look like little more than a quirk of our own cynical era.

I would like to conclude with Murray’s defense of experimentation in the arts. Whenever anyone starts talking about myth and archetypes as underlying literature the way Murray does, people understandably get suspicious: doesn’t that lead to artistic complacency and stereotypes, to political conservatism of the least thoughtful variety? But Murray was a partisan of modernism, not a marketer of Joseph Campbell monoplots to Hollywood nor a vendor of supposedly antediluvian sexual wisdom like some we could name today. Modernism’s motto was “make it new”—myths and archetypes are the “it,” but “new” is the point. Formal inventiveness, new ways of telling the old stories, are the aesthetic correlate of the social renewal presaged by true art’s rituals of survival and transcendence, the bearing of vital traditions through every challenge:

Implicitly, experiment is also an action taken to insure that nothing endures which is not workable; as such, far from being anti-traditional, as is often assumed, it actually serves the best interests of tradition, which, after all, is that which continues in the first place.

Revivals of unjustly neglected or forgotten authors may also renew tradition: so, if you want surprisingly prescient and relevant wisdom from almost half a century ago, it is a good day to read Albert Murray.

[1] 1973 was the same year of publication, incidentally, as Toni Morrison’s Sula, and only one year later than Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. It would be a great reading experience to take these three books in sequence, each correcting the excesses and omissions of the other: Reed cares, like Murray, for black expression as ritual action, but he puts this in an Afrocentric and anti-colonial context that Murray would find too culturally exclusivist and anti-American; as for Morrison, her vision of heroism incorporates more of the negative and the nihilistic than Murray seems willing to acknowledge—Murray may believe in “cooperative antagonism,” but Morrison believes in the devil—and she also, crucially, portrays female heroism, whereas Murray’s vision of the hero is (like all his favorite novelists) male.

[2] Murray would recognize the aforementioned social-media flayings as ritual actions, and he values farce above all genres—somewhat as Northrop Frye values satire (derived from the satyr play, the goatish—we would now call it “inappropriate”—caper that capped tragic trilogies in ancient Athens)—because of its power to counter the solemnity of ritual and mock ideologies before they become so aggrandized that they menace the community:

Farce breaks the spell of ritual. It counterbalances the magic which ritual works upon the imagination. It protects human existence from the excesses of the imagination and operates as a safeguard against the overextension of ideas, formulations, and formalities. After all, extended far enough, even the idea of freedom becomes a involving security measures and thus a justification for restrictions which exceed those that generated the thrust toward liberation in the first place. The world is, or should be, all too familiar with totalitarian systems which began as freedom movements.

“Should be”—you can say that again.


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Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of NantucketThe Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Calm block fallen down here from some dark disaster
—Stéphane Mallarmé, “The Tomb of Edgar Poe”

Edgar Allan Poe must have the strangest legacy in modern literature: he invented both pulp fiction and the literary avant-garde.

While these two tendencies may—in their shared commitments to sensationalism and formalism—be allies in a high-low war against the middle mind (exemplified in literature by the realist novel and the expressive lyric), it is quite a feat to have birthed them both. But Poe codified several important popular genres that would later flourish in the era of mass literacy and mass media (horror, detective fiction, science fiction) and thereby influenced such proto-pulp and pulp writers as Doyle, Stevenson, Wells, and Lovecraft, even as his theoretical insistence on a “pure” (i.e., non-mimetic) literary writing designed to affect the reader through the manipulation of form and surface, not to mention his depiction of disordered psychological states and waking dream-worlds, bequeathed a legacy to modernism and the avant-garde through Baudelaire and the French Symbolists and Decadents as well as such other admirers as Dostoevsky, Wilde, and Kafka.

Whether pulp fictioneer or avant-garde poet, Poe is the founder of a literature concerned with the production of forms (well-constructed generic tales or abstract sound-surface lyrics) rather than of truth or meaning. Neither a thriller nor an avant-garde poem can really be read as one is supposed to read Keats or Hawthorne, whose texts are dense entanglements of allusion and implication; thrillers and avant-garde poems are rather absorbed as intellectual structures and interpreted as sensational events. In this sense, Poe is one of first writers who, as in the German critical judgment that opens his story “The Man of the Crowd,” does not permit himself to be read.

All of this is an apology for the egregious amount of time it took me to read Poe’s brief only “novel,” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), and the egregious amount of skimming I did while “reading” it. Scare quotes abound, because The Narrative is not really a novel at all—it is a faux memoir/travelogue that eventually becomes a visionary romance (the introduction to my edition says that it “starts like Defoe and ends like Coleridge”)—and it cannot be read, because its seemingly mimetic passages are plagiarisms or hoaxes mimicking genuine travelogues (these are the parts I skimmed) while its visionary passages are not only meaningless in themselves but are allegories of the meaningless.

The tale: the title hero—a fictional double for the author, as the similarity of their names (Edgar/Arthur, Allan/Gordon, Poe/Pym) suggest—wants to escape his bourgeois family, so he runs away to sea by stowing away on the Grampus, a whaler whose captain is the father of his best friend Augustus. (Even before this, in the novel’s overture-like first chapter, Pym and Augustus take a boat out on a drunken night and suffer a wreck that should have warned them away from the water.) But the Grampus falls first to mutiny and then to stormy weather, until Pym and the few survivors of the drifting, disabled vessel have to resort to cannibalism to stay alive.

Eventually, Pym and the only other survivor, the brawny Dirk Peters (“the son of an Indian squaw of the tribe of Upsarokas, who live among the fastnesses of the Black Hills, near the source of the Missouri…[whose] father was a fur-trader,” sounding the novel’s themes of race and anxiety over racial proximity) are picked up by the Jane Guy, a ship bound on an exploratory journey toward the South Pole. Pym records many geographical, geological, nautical, biological and other observations on this scientific mission, which he dutifully reproduces (as Poe reproduced them from his nonfictional sources) for the reader.

Then the novel departs entirely from realism as the crew encounters a fantastical tribe of black islanders, who seem friendly at first; but the islanders observe a taboo concerning all things white, including white men, which leads them to attempt to massacre the explorers. Eventually, Pym, Peters, and Nu-Nu, a native of the island (called Tsalal), escape to the Antarctic Ocean and drift toward the South Pole, a region of perfect whiteness (as Tsalal had been a place of omnipresent blackness). Pym’s narrative famously, mysteriously concludes with this:

Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.

Following which conclusion, a strange editorial note informs us that Pym, who had somehow survived his Antarctic sojourn, has died in an accident in the United States before finishing his narrative; then the editor makes some crytographical observations about cave markings Pym had recored on Tsalal, so that we are given to understand the islanders, who speak a vaguely Hebraic language that is also reminiscent of Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Arabic, as perhaps an ur-tribe of humanity keeping at bay the white inhuman mystery at the bottom of the world.

When summarized, Pym/Poe’s narrative sounds thrillingly bizarre, but in execution, it is tedious hodgepodge of disparate elements, thickened for pages at a time with endless nautical and other detail probably meant to contribute to the book’s “hoaxing” element (the inveterate hoaxer Poe perhaps wanted, like his model Defoe, to convince readers this was a real memoir) and possibly even to pad out the length, given Poe’s aversion to (and apparent incompetence at) long-form writing. In his “Philosophy of Composition” (1846), Poe argues for the aesthetic primacy of the lyric and the tale over the epic and the novel, since the latter forms are too long to be read at one sitting and thus to have a unified effect on the reader:

If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with any thing that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones — that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least one half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose — a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions — the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity, of effect.

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art — the limit of a single sitting — and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as “Robinson Crusoe,” (demanding no unity,) this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem.

However dubious we might find this as a universal literary theory, it certainly applies to the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, whose intensely affecting sequences (the Grampus mutiny, the subsequent cannibalism among the abandoned survivors, the Jane Guy‘s encounter with the Tsalal islanders, the strange journey to the South Pole) could be cut out of the main body of the text and re-arranged as a cycle of brief short stories. Poe’s model, though, was Robinson Crusoe, which “demand[s] no unity,” and so he provided none to his haphazard narrative.

To put my judgment on Poe’s only novel with maximal bluntness: we would probably not now be reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym if it did not have Poe’s name on it; it is a lax production even by the standards of the early nineteenth century, when only a small handful of people (mainly Goethe, Jane Austen, and Stendhal) had figured out how to write a novel as a unified artistic composition that would not bore the discriminating readers of the future to death.

Even so, the book’s manifest flaws have not prevented critics from finding all manner of allegory in Pym’s narrative. Today its most salient theme is that of race. One of the narrative’s precipitating events is a shipboard rebellion led by a bloodhirsty black cook; the annotations to my edition direct us at that point to the recency of Nat Turner’s rebellion and its probably importance to Poe and his audience as Southerners. The editors fall silent when the mysterious black tribe on Tsalal island replays the rebellion near the novel’s conclusion, almost burying Pym and a crew of sailors alive in a black chasm, thus raising the fear of slave rebellion to a global and existential matter wherein there is always the potential for whiteness to be swamped by blackness. Pym the white man survives the islanders’ attack, however, only to confront, at the novel’s abrupt ending, the mysterious white giant at the South Pole.

This mute whiteness, signifying the end of life and meaning, is both transcendence and the peace of death; while blackness in the novel evokes vitality and the violence of life. (This is Toni Morrison’s gloss on Poe’s novel in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.) Poe is in effect mapping a metaphysical Platonic hierarchy onto a racial one derived from antebellum ideology, where whiteness is the unreachable bodiless goal of the striving soul and blackness the materiality of life that immures the soul and keeps it from its communion with the pure and ineffable. It must have been this fleshless white communion that entranced some in the avant-garde (though not Baudelaire or Dostoevsky or Kafka), inspiring their visions of mute poems about the absent Ideal, but the restive Poe is always half on the side of the rebellious and clamorous life he cannot keep himself from depicting.

As in “Ligeia,” where the awful, awesome life force overruns death (and a dark woman supplants a fair one) in a beautifully cloying atmosphere of strange and erotic sensuality, as in “The Cask of Amontillado,” where the decaying aristocrat Montresor uses the tools and the weapons of his enemy, the freethinking Freemason arriviste Fortunato, to accomplish his counter-revolutionary revenge in an act of murderous—what else?—masonry, Poe is all irony and reversal, all allegory and depth psychology. If he is more interesting than many of his successors on Parnassus or in the pulps, it is because he means more than they do, can be read more than they can, and is, in spite of himself, more akin to his own figuration of blackness than he seems.


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Longus, Daphnis and Chloe

Daphnis and ChloeDaphnis and Chloe by Longus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This early pastoral romance (dating from the second or third century A.D.) is both entertaining in itself and a good corrective to the received wisdom that the novel is a quintessential invention of Cervantes or capitalism or Protestantism or the eighteenth century. Though brief and beholden to the boys-meets/loses/gets-girl conventions of the Hellenistic romance, Daphnis and Chloe is recognizable as a novel: its protagonists learn and grow, deepening their sense of their world and how its constraints may be negotiated. Moreover, the voice of the narrator, self-conscious about narrating a winsome erotic pastoral, radiates a faint but persistent irony that I think of as the essence of the novelistic (Bakhtin, though he didn’t like Greek romances, argued that the novel as a form relativizes and ironizes all of the languages that make it up, and Longus, who is highly allusive according to this edition’s introduction, does this ably):

And to ensure that the child’s name should sound adequately pastoral, they decided to call him Daphnis.

The plot: Daphnis and Chloe are each found as babies by poor farmers in Lesbos and are reared to be a goatherd and a shepherdess, respectively, by their foster parents under the influence of prophetic dreams. The pair, working side by side every day as they drive the sheep and the goats, fall innocently in love. Gradually, they discover their erotic desire for each other; though, as they live before sex ed or Internet porn, they do not know what to do about it. (Eventually, Daphnis is instructed with maximal explicitness by a bored, predatory housewife in the vicinity who wants to fuck the beautiful boy any way she can and ends up doing so under the cover of pedagogy.) Their relationship is threatened by war and pirates, but our amorous pair are under the protection of the gods, particularly Eros, the Nymphs, and Pan, and are consequently always reunited. By the end of the novel, more mundane challenges interfere with their love, and we seem almost to pass in ten pages from the silly pseudo-Homeric adventures of Greek romance to the more mature complications of a Jane Austen: Daphnis, whose foster-father is a slave, may be too low-status to marry the more privileged Chloe; moreover, the slave-master is returning to survey his property, and there is the danger that he will dispose of Daphnis or else allow him to be taken on as a kind of sex-slave by the pederast Gnathon. Happily, everyone discovers before the end that the foundlings Daphnis and Chloe are in fact the abandoned children of important or wealthy families and can thus properly marry each other as social elites. They remain committed to their pastoral lifestyle, however, and the novel ends happily with their finally making love.

There is a mythical armature to Daphnis and Chloe; as mentioned, the lovers are under the protection of Eros, Pan, and the Nymphs, while the slave-master who comes to survey the property on which the amorous pair disport themselves is named Dionysophanes, or the manifestation of Dionysus. Margaret Anne Doody, in her vast study, The True Story of the Novel, argues for the continuity of the novel from Greek romance to today as an urbane feminist form of literature in contradistinction to the masculinist epic and tragedy; she interprets Daphnis and Chloe as a an allegory for the erotic potential of equal partnership. In a world where Dionysius has “sold out to Big Business” by becoming a property- and slave-owner, the pastoral couple (under the sponsorship of Pan, representing male sexuality, and the Nymphs, representing female sexuality) imperfectly prophesy the companionate marriage of intersubjective equals that will be described much later, by Doody’s favorite novelist, Samuel Richardson. This is an optimistic reading of Longus’s ironic narrative, obviously colored by Doody’s polemic against the Dionysius-worshipping Nietzsche, who scorned the Greek novel and the Hellenistic era as effeminate, decadent betrayals of the Greek tragic spirit. But in developing a lineage for the novel that goes back before Don Quixote and evades the airless Hegelian literary history that would lead us from Cervantes to the avant-garde end of narrative in an unbroken line of development, Doody’s interpretation is suggestive and cheering. (And surely the other side of Nietzsche’s personality, the one that sees “truth” as a contingent effect of rhetoric, might well be charmed by Longus’s irony.)

In a preface, Longus casts his whole novel as an ekphrasis, or a verbal description of a visual art object: he claims to be elaborating in narrative upon a large painting he encountered in the woods in Lesbos while hunting. Both the novel’s consciousness of its own artifice and its subtle modulation from the mythical divinities of love to the materialist determinations of property relations make it a fully-developed example of the novelist’s art, as does the tonal richness of the prose, which can shift easily from limpid nature poetry to social satire, and which even includes proto-stream-of-consciousness narration as the lovers muse on their erotic confusions:

‘Whatever is Chloe’s kiss doing to me? […] My breath’s coming in gasps, my heart’s jumping up and down, my soul’s melting away—but all the same I want to kiss her again! Oh, what an unlucky victory! Oh, what a strange disease—I don’t even know what to call it. Had Chloe drunk poison just before she kissed me? If so, how did she manage not to be killed?’

Really, only the novel’s investment in the moral and aesthetic superiority of certain bloodlines mark it as pre-modern; overturning this primitive eugenicism (still at work in the Greek romance plots of late Shakespeare) will be the true novelistic innovation of the eighteenth century, as Defoe and Richardson give us heroes and heroines whose heroism does not depend on an occulted blood connection to the ruling caste.

Almost nothing is known of Daphnis and Chloe‘s author; in translator Paul Turner’s introduction to this Penguin Classics edition, he even notes that “Longus” may simply be a misprint from “Logos” (meaning “story”) on an early edition’s title page, as contemporary novels are always subtitled “a novel”—maybe the effectively anonymous author is the multifarious spirit of fiction itself.


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César Aira, How I Became a Nun

How I Became a NunHow I Became a Nun by César Aira

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To recap, following on from my review of the brilliant An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, César Aira is a prolific Argentine avant-gardist who writes fiction through a method he refers to as a “flight forward”: he creates novellas by barreling forth without regard to formal perfection, researched content, plot coherence, or genre consistency.

Aira explains in this essay for The White Review that a contemporary writer needs to have such a procedure because the two dominant modern approaches to writing fiction—the realist mode of writing well-crafted chronicles of everyday life (Balzac, Tolstoy); and the modernist attempt to radicalize this realism through some drastic revision of its form (Flaubert, Joyce)—are exhausted. They are now the sclerotic professional gestures of the literary guild, incapable of vitality or creativity.

Luckily, there is a third alternative: the avant-garde, which, as I see it, is an attempt to recuperate the amateur gesture, and to place it on a higher level of historical synthesis. In other words, it implies immersing oneself in a field which is already autonomous and considered valid by society, and inventing new practices within that field to restore to art the ease with which it was once produced.

“Ease” is the key word there. Aira is avant-garde not because he wants to subvert the bourgeoisie or capitalism or what have you—and he even mocks in his essay the efforts of writers to “give voice to the voiceless”—but because he wants to restore to literature the creative freedom of such inventors as Balzac, whose seemingly casual inventions have by now frozen into mere professional know-how. But, echoing his own Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Aira asserts near the end of his essay, “It is not, then, a case of knowing but of acting.” He concludes his essay by asserting that the artist today is quite simply obligated to use an avant-garde procedure rather than trying to represent reality (realism) or perfect form (modernism):

In general, procedures of any kind consist in going back to the roots. As such it is the case that, nowadays, art that does not use a procedure is not truly art. This radicality is precisely what distinguishes authentic art from mere language use.

From some combination of vulgar American optimism, vulgar Anglo empiricism, and vulgar bourgeois anti-intellectualism, I highly distrust such pronunciamentos. I believe that there is still some potential left in the commitment to converting experience into form by the exercise of intelligence, which is to say that there is still some potential left in the non-avant-garde novel. (Have we truly come to the end of the permutations of form and experience? Have we really run out of experiences?) I also distrust the gesture that would cleave action from intelligence, an untenable idea with a poor track record that seems to be an overcompensatory vice of intellectuals. In short, I mostly disagree with Aira, though I have despairing days when I see exactly where he’s coming from—and I value the clarity with which he explains himself.

How does his theory work in practice? His novella How I Became a Nun is a very good test case. First published in Spanish in 1993, it is the first-person reminiscence of childhood. It promises in its first paragraph to explain a “vivid memory” of its narrator’s sixth year, after which “everything is an extension of the same vivid memory, continuous and unbroken, including the intervals of sleep, up to the point where I took the veil.” This is, I believe, the last appearance of the titular nun conceit; the novella’s ending even makes impossible the narrator’s becoming a nun (and also perhaps makes impossible the narrator’s narration). Now if this were a different kind of book by a different kind of writer, I would interpret “becoming a nun” as an elaborate metaphor for what actually does transpire in the novella, but I don’t intend to put more thought into interpretation than Aira put into composition (remember: “It is not, then, a case of knowing”).*

The actual plot concerns what happens when the narrator—whose childhood gender shifts back and forth throughout the tale and who is also sometimes named as César Aira—eats cyanide-laced strawberry ice cream on an outing with her father soon after the family moves to Rosario from Aira’s own hometown of Coronel Pringles. From this arresting two-chapter sequence, complicated by the narrator’s tortured relationship with his/her father, eight more chapters follow in loose connection to this animating incident.

We get the child’s experiences with delirious cyanide dreams, his/her time in the hospital, his/her time at school, his/her visit to his/her father in prison, and more, until the plot finally rounds back to the initial ice cream incident in the way of violent farce (“a strawberry eye scream”). Toward the end, in one of the narrator’s more potent observations, he/she describes the child’s growing awareness that life is more circle than line:

I didn’t see the cycle from the outside, as repetition, but from the inside, as a rectilinear movement.

Aire here calls into question the whole idea of writing forward, and of the avant-garde’s linear historical narrative, at the end of which they come to save art.

Much of this novella is written in ellipsis-ridden stream-of-consciousness, and much of it is uninvolving. It’s not that the closer Aira approaches realism the better he writes—the opening scene between father and son/daughter, realistic but on the edge of nightmare, may be the best thing in the book, but the narrator’s surreal dreams and his/her perhaps even more surreal friendship with a local dandy/prop-comic are the second and third best. The general weightlessness of the narrative, its flotation off the top of Aira’s head, makes it hard to hold onto or to remember, though. And Aira’s transparent reflections through the narrator on his own “procedure” (“Activities and instructions were indistinguishable”) are tiresome here, since they have no possible motivation by the characters or plot as they do in An Episode.

All in all, How I Became a Nun was only intermittently entertaining and intelligent. Aira has in a sense succeeded in taking the novel back before the nineteenth-century realists figured out how to write it; this narrative, alternately dull and exciting, silly and penetrating, reminds me of Cervantes or Defoe or Voltaire, but with a different set of historical justifications for their relative incoherence.

“Human beings tend to make sense of experience by imbuing it with continuity,” observes the narrator. This is what the narrator cannot do, and what his/her creator refuses to do on principle. Here the costs outweigh the benefits—and the waste of a great title might be the greatest cost of all!


* On the other hand: scrolling through the Goodreads reviews, I found this very good one by s.penekvich, which interprets the novella thusly:

Through a lonely pilgrimage of childhood, César experiments with fiction in a preparation towards a life of being an author, a sacred undertaking of servitude to Stories much like entering the Sisterhood of Nuns.

On Aira’s terms as stated in the White Review essay, this may make too much modernist meaning out of what was supposed to be avant-garde action, but it gives me a new appreciation for the book. I also note the observation, which I missed, that the other characters identify the narrator as male while the narrator identifies herself as female: perhaps, if we’re making modernist meaning, this is a comment on the gender of the artist as such in modernity.

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How the Novel Succeeded and How You Can Too

[I post this at Tumblr yesterday in response to an anonymous questioner using that platform’s “ask” feature. I am posting it here because this is generally where I keep longer pieces I’ve written. The questioner asked me if I had any thoughts on how the novel rose to cultural prominence, despite the form’s many critics, and he said that his question was inspired by recent events surrounding Jack Thompson, a notoriously censorious opponent of video games. And this is my reply:]

Had to google Mr. Thompson, but now I think I am on your train of thought. So, how did the novel get taken seriously, and how might other upstart art forms follow suit? Three ways, by my quickly dashed-off reckoning:

1. Constantly reinvent by parodying the prior trashy or unfashionable or outdated genres that have characterized the form. Don Quixote is the textbook case: prose narrative is characterized by stupid romances? Rewrite them to make them seem false and your own version true. And novelists took Cervantes’s hint. Austen does it to Gothic romances and Byronic poetry, Flaubert does it to romantic literature in Madame Bovary, Joyce does it to the domestic realist novel in Ulysses, and postcolonial feminism makes an industry out of it, with Things Fall Apart rewriting Heart of Darkness, Wide Sargasso Sea rewriting Jane Eyre, Foe rewriting Robinson Crusoe, and Beloved rewriting every nineteenth-century American classic in sight. “All those older novels were lying to you, but my novel is telling you the truth.”

2. Nominate yourself avatar of the world-spirit. People are saying your favored art form–in this case, the novel–is just some trash read by bored adolescent girls? Au contraire–it is the education of the heart, the bearer of moral virtue (Richardson, Rousseau), it is the instrument of total social reform and regeneration and redemption (Dickens, Stowe, Dostoevsky), it is the means of apprehending historical development and present society (Scott, Balzac, Tolstoy), it is the modern legatee of ancient epic narrating society’s self-conception and furnishing the means of progress (various theorists from Schlegel to Jameson). “Novels are not just entertainment–they are our world in a book!”

3. Focus on form. Your chosen art is a loose, baggy monster? Go to school with the poets and dramatists, then, whose chosen forms impose prior constraints on structure, from the customary twoish hour running time to the standard verse meters. Your novel must “carry its justification in every line,” says Conrad. Flaubert perspires over every comma, and he is joined by a long train of fellow sufferers; some of us are still sweating. Henry James invents a rulebook about the proper subject matter (the present palpable-intimate) and the proper way to treat it (through a sophisticated manipulation, toward ethical ends, of narrative perspective). And even those who will come along later to play with these deliberately wrought forms can only do so by being equally formalist. “Novels are not just for fun; they are carefully arranged art objects.”

Those are the most salient means by which novelists and partisans of the novel convinced the world that theirs was a sophisticated, serious form of art.

I take it your question implies an analogy between novels and video games, but I don’t know anything about video games, so let me make a lateral move to another contemporary “low” art form in the process of elevation, one I do know something about: comics and graphic novels.

Consider Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, perhaps the most acclaimed of all graphic novels, the only one on the Time 100. It deploys all three techniques I outlined above: it parodies prior super-hero comics to suggest, with Cervantine metafictional devices, that its critical depiction of that genre’s subject matter is the only true one; it casts itself as a meditation on political power in the twentieth century and a thick description of nuclear anxiety, which made it seem politically relevant at the time of its release and makes it seem historical in a pedagogically useful way now; and it seeks and attains a formal closure (through the meter-like constraint of its nine-panel grids, its endless doublings and mirrorings at visual and narrative levels, and its obsessive patterning of a limited set of symbols) never before attempted on such a large scale in comics. And it worked: everybody took Watchmen seriously, and continues to do so.

While I have pledged myself to plod along with the old doddering novel, I recommend that the new forms of narrative art seeking their fortune follow something like the script above. Hope that’s what you had in mind!

James Wood, David Mitchell, and the Metaphysics and Morality of the Novel

While I enjoyed number9dream, Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I haven’t read David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and I don’t know that I will.  The high fantasy trope of immemorially-warring clans who represent good and evil may secretly structure most political commentary today, but the peculiar virtue of literature is to provide texts, narratives, and images of sufficient phenomenal density or intensity to avoid such moralizing.*  (Almost everybody in King Lear is a little bit evil; almost everybody in Middlemarch is a little bit good.)  This is why (to answer Jennifer Weiner’s question) difficulty is often prized by writers and critics: it is the sign of the complexity by which literature announces its avoidance of the reductionisms of the philosophers and politicians.  Now difficulty should never be sought or praised for its own sake—I prefer Mrs. Dalloway to The Waves—and apparently simple and easy-to-read texts can present fierce conceptual challenges, as in Kafka or Coetzee or Ishiguro or the poems of Emily Dickinson.  But if a text aims mainly at either entertainment or didacticism or even beauty without introducing contradiction, paradox, and irony, then it falls short of literary merit.  The autonomy of literature, from which my assumptions proceed, was an historical achievement, an episode in the freeing of the intelligence from unaccountable authorities; those who would dispense with it blithely don’t understand what was at stake in its construction and, like other populists who rage against independent institutions for their “elitism,” unwittingly bolster the authority of other, usually more powerful institutions.  Having critics and professors arbitrate questions of literary merit is not perfect, but it’s better than having priests or bureaucrats do it.  If this were James Wood’s point in his review of The Bone Clocks, I would happily grant it and move on.  But Wood makes a further claim about the historical role of the novel that entails some troubling consequences:

I doubt that David Mitchell’s intention was to return the secular novel to theological allegory, but that is what “The Bone Clocks” does. Above all, his cosmology seems an unconscious fantasy of the author-god, reinstating the novelist as omniscient deity, controlling, prodding, shaping, ending, rigging. He has spoken of his novels as forming one “Über-book,” in which themes and characters recur and overlap: an epic ambition. Battles involving men and gods are, indeed, the life-and-death-blood of the epic form. But didn’t the epic hand off to the novel, in the last book of “Paradise Lost,” when the Angel Michael tells Adam and Eve that, though they will lose actual Paradise, they will possess “a Paradise within thee, happier far”? The novel takes over from the epic not just because inwardness opens itself up as the great novelistic subject but because human freedom asserts itself against divine arrangement. The “human case” refuses to be preordained. The history of the novel can, in fact, be seen as a secular triumph over providential theology: first, God is displaced; then the God-like author fills the theological void; then the God-like author is finally displaced, too. Despite Mitchell’s humane gifts as a secular storyteller, “The Bone Clocks” enforces an ordained hermeticism, in which fictional characters, often bearing names from previous Mitchell fictions, perform unmotivated maneuvers at the behest of mysterious plotters who can do what they want with their victims. Time to redact this particular Script.

I want to agree with this, but I can’t:

1. The Milton quote is great and effectively persuasive at first glance, but it has an arbitrariness that makes one aware of its sectarian basis.  Is the novel really an attenuated consequence of the Reformation?  I doubt it.  For one thing, the dates don’t line up, and the ideologies and theologies don’t either.  The literary turn to inwardness predates both the rise of the novel and Protestantism.  Landmarks include the post-Petrarchan lyric and Shakespearean tragedy and even, from a certain point of view, the Arthurian romance.  Also consider The Divine Comedy.  On the one hand, this is an epic on Wood’s terms, a proto-BoneClocksian saga of the eternal battle between good and evil.  But on the other hand it is legible as a projection onto the cosmos of a psyche, or a series of psychic states.  All of these influence Milton, of course, but that’s part of the point: both the novel and Protestantism might better be seen as consequences of a larger historical sequence, one with nuances and gradations hidden behind the “hand-off” narrative in which Milton simply passes the torch to Defoe or whomever and Christianity becomes secularism.  Reversing the causality—taking the liberalism that is the deliquescence of Protestantism as primary and unproblematically universal and not the contingent epiphenomenon of an older and ongoing process—is an ideological maneuver that forecloses more complex ways of accounting for both literature and intellectual history.  (And it also blames bad contemporary genre writing on the great epic poets, which is hardly fair.)

2.  Because Wood simply opposes epic to novel (and leaves out lyric and tragedy altogether) he can’t see continuities among these forms.  In Dante, good and evil are adduced, but portrayed as a spatialized metaphysics—hell, purgatory, paradise—that doubles as a psychology, as inwardness; the moral conflict is an inner conflict, as it will later be in the great novels.  There is no good vs. evil in The Aeneid, Dante’s model; there are simply conflicts among humans and gods, with ironies attending everybody’s activity, and a fate that, however unavoidable, extracts massive costs even from its beneficiaries.  These two examples show two major genealogies Wood leaves out of his implied history of the novel.  First (call it the Dantean) is the broad romance or gothic tradition (at times a Northern Protestant redaction of a Southern Catholic sensibility)—encompassing Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and Wilde, and arguably extending to include Kafka, Borges, and magical realism—in which psychological states or affects or concepts are externalized in a landscape.  Second (let’s say the Virgilian) is less a genre than an aesthetic mood, closer to tragedy than to epic, exhibited by many distinguished novelists—maybe “naturalism” comes close as name—in which humanity is pictured as more or less non-free, as caught in a webwork of natural determinations that mock the Christian promise of free will except in the most local moral situations and sometimes not even then; such a mood is centered in naturalism proper (Hardy, Zola, Dreiser) but also abuts at one end on modernism (Conrad, Joyce) and at the other on genre horror and sf (Lovecraft).  In neither of these traditions does individual freedom play a very large role, except as hope, delusion, or sometimes only half-integrated political polemic; there is a deep and perhaps dismaying conservatism in literature, where conservatism means the acceptance of limitation, the denial of human self-fashioning that is the hallmark of modern thought.  Wood has always been famously uneasy with the romance/gothic/magical realist mode (“Fiction should not be magical” is how the line from The Broken Estate goes, I believe), while, in reference to the second, he has celebrated the freedom of human consciousness within natural and social determination as materialized in free indirect discourse.  Indeed, free indirect discourse itself is the stylistic compensation, the verbal residue of the Christian promise, for the Darwnian or Schopenhauerean or Nietzschean or Freudian anti-Christian and implicitly anti-liberal philosophy we encounter in fiction from Tolstoy to Woolf.  Consciousness in modern fiction is less a seat of free decision than a ghostly nimbus in a half-remembered room.

So the problem, as I see it, with Wood’s aesthetic is that he rules out a priori an interaction among psychology, supernaturalism, and human constraint in the novel, seeing the conjunction as simply outmoded (and religiously erroneous: Catholic or Gnostic), even though these have long interacted in some of the greatest modern novels.

(No surprise, then, that he praises Knausgaard, whose tedious artifices I find more pernicious than those of an author-God like Mitchell’s, precisely because they pretend not to be artifices.  Maybe this is my lapsed-Catholic/Nietzschean objection to the whole cultural [as opposed to political] project of secularism: you can get rid of God, but not the place He filled.  Here’s a sentence from my as-yet-unpublished novel, Portraits and Ashes, a sentence about an artist who purchases a deconsecrated church: “When they asked her what she intended to put in the nave, in the empty space where the altar had been, she said, ‘Nothing.'”)

The assumption that the novel is a fundamentally liberal form—a praise of the individual’s rational freedom—just does not pass the test of historical evidence.  Many of the best have been tragic, showing a conflict between incommensurate worldviews decided well above the human head—or else so deep within it as to be inaccessible to free choice—and at great human cost.  Does this not describe Wuthering Heights and The Portrait of a Lady, Anna Karenina and To the Lighthouse?  Even in Dostoevsky, who was committed to the theology of free will without—to say the least!—being a liberal, we find an attention to the hidden motivation and an emphasis on the submission to holiness.  Just as Virgil and Dante are great insofar as they exceed the ideologies they ostensibly wrote in support of, so the novel can be great insofar as it is more than an expression of North Atlantic post-Protestantism.

*Edited to add (1): If Brian Finney is correct, Mitchell employs this trope as a metaphor for the psychology of individual avarice, which would put him in the Dantean tradition, and moreover deploys it in the register of parody, in which case he follows that other student of Dante, Joyce, whose tropes are always at once serious and parodic, statements of truth that raise awareness of the rhetorical means by which truth is necessarily stated, since words are not the world.

Edited to add (2): I did end up reading The Bone Clocks and disliking for reasons superficially similar to but profoundly different from Wood’s reasons. I regard it as failed fantasy rather than failed realism. My review is here.