Let me begin with a quote:
The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.
Except for the mention of the mid-20th century in the first sentence, doesn’t that sound like it might have been uttered this morning? Probably was uttered this morning as we doomscrolled through today’s news over our first cup of coffee? In fact, though, it appeared more than sixty years ago—in March, 1961—in an essay by Philip Roth published in Commentary, the leading postwar journal committed to constructing Jewish identity in the US following the Holocaust—appeared before, that is, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; before the social convulsions of the sixties, Vietnam, and Watergate; before the moon landing and the advent of the PC, the World Wide Web, Amazon, the cell phone, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, video games, and virtual reality; before AIDS, 9/11, the US debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the deciphering of the human genome; before the resignation of Richard Nixon, the inauguration of Barack Obama, the emergence of Donald Trump and his Trumpniks, the resurgence of the far right (with its magnification of the racist, sexist, despotic, and violent impulses innate to American culture); before the exponential growth of income and health-care inequality, the weaponization of disinformation on social media and off, and the intrinsic dysfunction of our political and academic systems.
And now look at us.
We might be tempted to say much of what I just listed strikes us as a little quaint in its ability to shock, befuddle, and enrage, even as we find ourselves weathering a pandemic that, according to the World Health Organization, may have already claimed more than fifteen million lives worldwide; in the midst of a redefinition of geopolitics (with a renewed spotlight on the grim realities of refugeeism) in response to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine; and on the brink of a climate catastrophe, which may well be too late to stop, and which has prompted some think tanks to begin pondering the question: How can we learn to adapt to our own extinction?
For the past twenty-two years the American West, where I have lived and worked for three decades, has suffered a megadrought sparked by that catastrophe. In California, the result has been the eruption of massive wildfires that have burned millions of acres while pumping more than 112 million tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, making the air toxic for months on end. A byproduct of that daymare has been the disappearance of lakes. The Great Salt Lake in Utah, for example, which has been shrinking for decades, has now reached an historic low. If the trend continues—and there is no reason to suspect it won’t—scientists predict it will evaporate entirely within the next decade. If that happens, clouds of arsenic dust concentrated in the dry lakebed will blow into Salt Lake City on a regular basis. Prolonged exposure will lead to increased rates of lung cancer.
Another way of saying this: things will get a lot worse before they get a lot worse.
The scale implicit in Roth’s observation, in short, has changed spectacularly. What once seemed huge has been recalibrated by the events of the last, say, quarter century. Richard Powers’s 2018 eco-novel, The Overstory, about nine Americans whose relationship with trees invites its readers to contemplate the destruction of our forests and the implications of that loss, is emblematic of this transformation. The novel’s first of three sections, “Roots,” is initially told on the timespan of trees rather than human beings—an exceptional move. Powers thereby recasts a calcified narrative arc to emphasize the insignificance of the individual within earth’s 4.5-billion-year and the universe’s 14-billion-year history. His bleak hope in that opening section relocates itself in the endurance, not of homo sapiens, but those other species that might survive murder at our hands. Tellingly, that relocation undoes itself in the second and third sections of the novel as it re-focalizes on human protagonists, re-privileging our timescale and troubling its own argument by returning to narrative business more or less as usual. Nonetheless, The Overstory teaches us something important about narrativity: telling from an unanticipated angle opens onto drastically new possibility spaces of comprehension.
The Overstory underscores a vital pair of aesthetic and existential questions: What is the contemporary novelist, the contemporary literary citizen, supposed to do in view of our current situation, one that an author of Roth’s generation simply couldn’t begin to begin to fathom? How do we proceed in light of a challenge Annie Dillard posed decades ago—“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case…. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”—how do we proceed now that we have grasped that our mortality is taking place on a planetary scale? How do we proceed knowing in the heart of our anxious hearts that novels don’t change the world, never have, and never will, that we are fiddling while Rome burns? Do we damn ourselves with yet more faint optimism, trying to persuade ourselves that living in history has always been savage, and today is no exception? Perhaps settle for maintaining a comfortable armchair-outrage from inside our bougie retreats?
I don’t think so. Or at least I hope not. And what I want to think about today is the why of that. Let me begin by proposing what I think most of us already intuit: that while novels don’t change the world, never have, and never will, they continuously change individuals, change us, within the world, so long as we allow ourselves to become fully present in their presence. In other words, their function has never been global, but rather local; never been external, but rather internal. Perhaps that’s why we experience such cognitive dissonance when we come across the proposition that novels don’t transfigure anything at all. Every one of us who reads them is a walking example of how untrue such a proposition is. We each remember the hour a novel changed the worlds within us, and by doing so changed our relationship to the worlds outside us.
I recall two texts—one a novella, one a novel—which I encountered in high school that shocked me into the writing, reading, and thinking life. Before I tell you about them, however, you have to envision what a terrible student I was. I confess I was that annoyingly apathetic one who sat in the back of the classroom, staring out the window, daydreaming, biding my time until the period I was suffering through was done. I wore my D average as a badge of courage and apostasy, believing unwaveringly—along with high school students everywhere—that I had it all figured out.
For some still inexplicable reason, my eleventh-grade English teacher took exception with my premises. Her name was Joyce Garvin. She stood barely five feet tall, was almost eerily slight, and sported forehead-slappingly red hair and unreasonably large green turtle-shell glasses. One day after class, as I was trying to escape without notice, she caught me and handed me a copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. She said I should read it. We could then get together and talk about it if I was interested. That first sentence we all know so well (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”) both turned me into an author and lured me far into the German language. The stunning labor that it accomplishes in so few words and with such mathematical grace; the abrupt blossoming of its unhinged vision and complex tone; its literalization of a metaphor that both critiques capitalism’s dehumanization of the working subject and unlocks an exploration into existential alienation and disability—how could I possibly be the same person after reading it as before?
When we finished talking about the Metamorphosis, Joyce Garvin offered me a full-blown novel: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Although there were whole galaxies I didn’t understand about it, what blew me away were its reimagining of the sentence in a rural southern register, its use of interior monologue and stream of consciousness (which I had never met before), and, most momentous for me, its embrace of Nietzsche’s notion of perspectivism (a notion which, I later learned, arrived by way of Faulkner’s own mentor: his friend Phil Stone, an attorney in Oxford, Mississippi, who had graduated from Yale and introduced the young wannabe outrider of overwrought Romantic poetry to Marx, Joyce, and Modernist art, thereby turning him into the Faulkner we recognize today)—its embrace of Nietzsche’s notion of perspectivism, which suggests that a polyphony of voices means a multiplicity of contradictory realities, a refusal to welcome any single absolute epistemological or ethical point of view.
Like many of us, I imagine, in graduate school I experienced the same kind of adventure Joyce Garvin introduced me to, only now several times a day. I was never the same person Friday that I had been Monday. I recall opening Stein’s Tender Buttons for the first time, and confronting passages like this:
In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling. In the evening there is feeling. In feeling anything is resting, in feeling anything is mounting, in feeling there is resignation, in feeling there is recognition, in feeling there is recurrence and entirely mistaken there is pinching. All the standards have steamers and all the curtains have bed linen and all the yellow has discrimination and all the circle has circling. This makes sand.
It’s that sort of encounter which taught me how to realize I was standing before the experimental: a sparking provocation up and down my spine to invent a new discourse with which to discuss this new event. In Stein’s case that had to do, in part, with how she deployed linguistic illegibility to create the impression of micro-arguments (here the last sentence indicates by its form it has arrived at a conclusion that obviously doesn’t exist) while undoing logic (the essence of argument, which is to say the essence of Enlightenment hope) through the use of a para-grammar, where word clusters look like sentences, engage with the syntax and the other trappings of sentences (verbs, nouns, and so on), yet refuse to function as units of unambiguous meaning. To put it otherwise: trying to navigate a line by Stein is to enter an anti-teleological activity, a zone of perpetual suspension, a process of unlearning everything I once took for granted about language and literature.
I recently attended a talk by Azar Nafisi, the author, most recently, of Read Dangerously, in which in part she spoke about Alice’s experiences in Wonderland as an extended metaphor for the act of reading. All readers, like Alice, Nafisi said, don’t know what they will find when they plunge down the rabbit hole of a new book. That’s where our excitement and perhaps vague apprehension arises. And somewhere along the journey those readers will encounter the caterpillar. They may ask him, along with Alice: Who are you? But in the end it is the caterpillar that poses the final question for us all: Who are you? That’s the query waiting for us at the center of every text, but, I would suggest, that query, those feelings, are amplified drastically in those texts we have come to call innovative.
What was it that I responded to so deeply in such distinct Modernists? And how does that commence addressing at least one corner of the question I posed at the outset of this essay? Last semester, I taught, as I regularly do, a course on Modernist intellectual and aesthetic history, in part to thank literary, theoretical, musical, filmic, dance, and artistic texts that have meant so much to me over the decades. The first book we read was The Odyssey, and the first large question I posed to my students was why so many Modernists, from James Joyce to Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, gravitate toward it.
One reason, I offer, has to do with its deep-structure assertation that rhymes with one aspect of Heidegger’s thinking. Heidegger argues that, while many of us want to believe that being-at-home is the fundamental human condition, living proves furiously otherwise: that not-being-at-home is the much more fundamental one. The Odyssey isn’t, as we usually tell ourselves, about Odysseus reaching the Ithaca of the mind. Rather, it is about how the Ithaca of the mind can never be reached. Settling down is just a rumor in Odysseus’s rented world. The Odyssey is about, rather, the two decades Odysseus fights in the Trojan war and wanders, about how even when he returns home he doesn’t, in any essential sense, return home: the suitors have overrun the place; Penelope doesn’t recognize him; Odysseus is no longer the young man who set out all those years—all those bodies, all those beliefs—ago.
Kafka, Faulkner, and Stein searched for fresh narrative modes in which to tell what they perceived as a chaotic, cruel, bewildering present in which not-being-at-home was a heart-slamming given. The mythic journey underpinning the Bundren family’s odyssey through flood and flame from their farm to Jefferson to bury their matriarch, Addie, is straightforward to track. In Kafka, though, that sense of not-being-at-home moves from the landscape of the natural environment into the landscape of an unnatural body through Gregor’s transformation. There the corporeal becomes estranged horrorshow, a haunted house, Odysseus’s helter-skelter Mediterranean basin where the teratoids turn out to be our own ever-shifting flesh, even as the domestic space of the Samsa apartment blurs into precarious fever dream. In Stein, the terms change again, placing the reader into the role of nomad among a language that rejects the domestic coordinates of signification. The Modernist project, that is, was an attempt to invent ways to narrativize an uncertain contemporary—but without completely abandoning or completely perpetuating the past.
It goes without saying that that project isn’t unique to them. It has been the most important undertaking for those of us invested in challenging writing practices since, let us say by way of approximation, the late nineteenth century. The question that serves as its engine is one succinctly voiced by Jean-François Lyotard in 1979: How do we present the unpresentable? While Lyotard frames his reasoning around the Kantian sublime, I’d like to go somewhere else by rephrasing it—posing Lyotard sans Lyotard: How do we present a contemporary that feels beyond presentation itself?
By way of tentative answer, let me bring to the surface what has so far remained my mostly subtextual argument: Every form suggests a philosophy. Let me say that again: Every form suggests a philosophy. If so, then writing doesn’t simply embody its thematics at the stratum, for example, of character, dialogue, setting, leitmotif, symbol, and so forth, the textual loci we have become habituated to uncover and explicate, but also at that of structure itself, which is to say among the architectonics of everything from story organization to page design, image layout, sentence construction, font choice, and other cultural/interpretative invisibles.
It seems untenable to repeat ossified forms as much as it does to repeat ossified conceptions of character (which is to say ossified conceptions of selfhood), arrangement (which is to say ossified conceptions of epistemology and telos), setting (which is to say ossified conceptions of the world), and the rest, whose deep assumptions have led us to the calamity called now. Doing so strikes me at best as reactionary reflex, at worst as exemplar of a kind of willed blindness. The danger intrinsic in that move is that it consciously or unconsciously sustains received narratives, which is to say consciously or unconsciously sustains received systems of knowing, and, as Trump and his Trumpniks fathom only too well (to paraphrase a quote often inaccurately attributed to Goebbels), if you tell a lie big enough, and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. If we structure our narratives familiarly enough, reproduce them frequently enough, people will eventually come to assume those structures tell us something true about how our universe works—that, for example, complexity and conflict can unravel (as romantic comedy instructs us) into easy resolution; or that (as detective novels instruct us) reason and the careful collection of evidence can lead to certitude; or that the plot arc of life (as many memoirs instruct us) is fundamentally fundamentalist Christian in nature: a fall from innocence into sin that leads through tribulation to redemption.
Yet don’t the cataclysms I mention above, this carnage carnival in which we are complicit, imply, rather, that our cosmos arrives as shrapnel, not logic or illumination, and that the only telos we can be sure of is a continuous anti-teleological condition of flux, uncertainty, and question till death do us part? The feeling is akin to the sense you sometimes get when rapidly surfing the web: an ongoing disorientation followed by orientation followed by disorientation in a data hurricane. Information sickness, Ted Mooney termed it prophetically in his 1981 novel, Easy Travel to Other Planets, in which overwhelmed pedestrians now and then drop in place along New York streets and curl into fetal balls, bleeding from the nose, when it all becomes too real.
We disrupt narrative structure, not because it’s fun (though it most definitely is that), and not because it’s gimmicky (it most definitely isn’t that), but instead because, as the protagonist of Lidia Yuknavitch’s recent novel, Thrust, knows: “Stories are quantum.” Stories—serious, self-reflective narratives written here, now—are the antithesis of Newtonian. They exist in multiple, in simultaneity, from manifold perspectives, shot through with skepticism, active interrogation, and fierce doubt, set in relentless resistance to the received complacency, the received whistling in the dark, that has made the world this world. Through the constant act of disturbance as a way of being—a passionate, permanent incarnation of the examined life—extreme narrativity asks us to envision the text of the text, the text of our lives, and the text of the world other than they are, and thus asks us to contemplate the idea of fundamental change in all three. It acts as a portal for transformation while foregrounding marginalized subjectivities, alternative positions, new ways of experiencing experience, past and present, of envisioning all tomorrow’s parties and our own funerals. As Saul Bellow once wrote: Freedom is an ordeal.
I was asked recently by an interviewer why exploring the dark spaces doesn’t lead me to give into despair. I discovered myself answering that I suppose I see what I’m doing through a different optic. First, talking about giving in to despair strikes me as the wrong way to put it. That metaphor connotes losing a struggle. But why should entering a state of despair be conceptualized as failure? It is simply (and complexly) an emotion we embrace among the myriad others that make humans human. I don’t get why at this turn in history we would want to repress, distract, or self-medicate ourselves away from a frantic sense of helplessness. This, after all, is who we have become. This is what we have done to ourselves. We reside in the city of extremis among a flood of antidepressants, conspiracy theories, and New Age quackery and superstitions, the consequence of our society’s choices, and that feels bewildering and dismal. Examining and articulating our despair (not “working through it,” as our pop psychologists recommend, but embracing it, these personal and social traumas without end) is an essential part of what it means, not to heal, but rather to be a thoughtful, fully feeling subjectivity.
Second—and this may sound paradoxical in light of what I just said—engaging in defiant narrativity, in reminding ourselves that trying to maneuver through the world using someone else’s choreography is both dangerous and deadening; in reminding our students in the classroom and our readers outside its doors that we don’t have to live this way, that we can continually at least imagine the act of rewriting our scripts, despite the evidence, despite the untellables, at least locally—engaging in defiant narrativity is the precise inverse of despair, or, rather, a further complication of despair’s complications. (I often wonder if it is syntax and grammatical encumbrance that are to blame for our belief that we can only experience one category of emotion at a time.) This puts me in mind of how searingly Carole Maso expresses a related idea in her essay “World Book”:
We write now into our extinction with surprising reserves of energy, perversely embracing the motion toward our disappearance. From the erasures, from the negations, from the violence and assaults and trespasses and betrayal, from the love for all that passes, the novel in new forms will persist; it alone has the potential of coming closer than any other human document to the poignancy and terror of the moment.
As I recite those lines, I’m thinking about Steve Tomasula’s eco-horror novel, Ascension. Typical of his explorations, it is an act of lavish research and penetrating critical thought, an advanced report sent back from the library of tomorrow—in this case about how humans invent “nature” even as their conception of “nature” invents their thinking and thus their “reality.” The first chapter tells that instant on the cusp of Darwin remaking the natural world. The second tells that instant in the eighties when the nature of “nature” translates from analog to digital. And the third and final chapter tells that instant of our contemporary, where humans have begun to become anachronisms. In other words, Ascension tackles the convulsions of colonization, digitization, and our encroaching extinction by examining how “nature” occurs, not as some sort of objective out-there, but rather as a substantiation of species subjectivity. At the same time, Ascension tackles what history feels like at a scale where homo sapiens are gradually becoming the size of stray thoughts. As with most of Tomasula’s work, Ascension merges text and images, each page of the first chapter seeded with nineteenth-century illustrations of “nature,” the third with QR codes to access various databases documenting our decline, from mass shootings to the Extinction Clock. An interactive version of chapter three also appears online.
I’m thinking, too, about one of the most intriguing post-genre texts I’ve encountered lately: the Canadian poet-novelist-performance artist M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, which appeared in 2008, and which dwells in a literary space committed to extreme innovation in the service of social justice. Zong! untells the narrative of the eponymous merchant ship that in 1781 sailed from the west coast of Africa with 442 slaves and seventeen crewmembers on board. Due to poor navigation, the usually nine-week voyage ended up taking twice that long. The result was water ran short and sickness proliferated. To preserve some of what the captain referred to as its African “cargo,” the crew began to throw ill slaves overboard. Many of those still in good health, witnessing the massacre before them, committed suicide by themselves leaping into the sea. Somewhere between 130 and 150 drowned. Upon the ship’s arrival in Jamaica, its owners made a claim to its British insurers for a loss of “cargo.” The insurers refused to pay, the case went to trial, and the judgement came back that the deliberate killing of slaves was legal. Consequently, the insurers were obliged to pay out.
“There is no telling this story,” Philip launches her essay on how she came to write Zong! How, she asks, does one go about narrativizing the unimaginable? Her answer is to take on the legal document from the trial—the judicial, institutional, so-called rational version of what transpired—and to detonate it across Zong!’s pages, dismantling its language and presuppositions both at the levels of thematics and form as she termites forward into a text comprised of six smaller ones, a glossary, the ship’s fictitious manifest, and Philip’s own notes about her unwriting. The outcome is in “equal parts song, moan, shout, oath, ululation, curse, and chant,” mourning as archival undoing, an enraged ghost story that emulates the thoughts and experiences of the slaves whose thoughts and experiences cannot be emulated, thus generating a fugal counter-narrative, a documentary poetics, that chronicles America’s cruel forensic landscape, fully acknowledging the contradictions inherent in such a gesture. Having completed the book rendition of Zong!, Philip spilled its text into the world by means of days-long collaborative performances begun on each anniversary of the massacre. Her project is a work, then, of historiographic metafiction, a narratological mode close to my own heart in my novels Nietzsche’s Kisses and My Red Heaven, for instance, whose goal is to trouble the very idea of yesterday, what is told, from what angle, how, and from what centers of power, not in order to reclaim history, but rather in order to explore how history is always about the impossibility of truth recovery.
Here we might recall Vladimir Nabokov’s remark: “Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.” The texts I have been discussing are indicative of trans-forms that transfigure—philosophies that adopt a Heraclitean transitivity by refusing to settle, even while celebrating anti-teleology as the preferred existential dance. One might propose, in light of this, that they are, from a certain perspective, radically democratic texts that understand democracy is never designed to make the individual comfortable. Just the opposite. Comfort is the job of late-stage capitalism’s spectacular despotisms. Democracy, on the other hand, is precisely about an unstable state of perpetual inconvenience. Back for a moment to Saul Bellow and Azar Nafisi, the latter of whom said about the former: “He not only critiqued totalitarian systems but correctly predicted the dilemmas of democracy, and the dangers threatening it, not least our sleeping consciousness, atrophy of feeling, and our desire to forget.”
I want to conclude by talking about something else going on in these texts. The cognitive psychologist and psycholinguist Steven Pinker calls fiction “empathy technology,” a magnificent phrase intimating that one reason we read is to inhabit—in ways other arts don’t allow—the consciousness of other human beings for extended periods, to live among their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and to appreciate again and again that reading can be an act, not only of overt political resistance, but also of human compassion, which, after all, is another kind of political resistance.
Yet I don’t think that’s exactly how things work. I see the texts I’ve been discussing engaged in doing something different. They are teaching us that unproblematized empathy—a word that tracks back through the German Einfühlung (meaning feeling at one with) coined in 1858 by the philosopher Rudolf Lotze as a translation of the Greek empatheia, meaning to suffer with another—is an impossibility. After all, how can we possibly gain deep knowledge of another when such a goal stands outside our reach even when talking about ourselves? The fact is we spend our lives having the epiphany, over and over, that the idea of gaining full self-understanding amounts to a utopian undertaking. How in the world could we therefore possibly attempt to understand—let alone share the feelings of—another human being whose gender, race, geopolitical and economic position, education, sociohistorical moment, and so on are always-already utterly removed from our own?
My point, naturally, isn’t that we should give up trying. Rather, the texts I’ve been discussing contend through their (trans)forms as well as their content that, as we wander deeper and deeper into our culture’s atrocity exhibition, we should attempt to situate radical empathy inside our classrooms and out, in our innovative writing practices and the practices comprising our daily existences…even as we know we absolutely cannot, even as we know we absolutely must, even as we know chasing empathy will unremittingly lead us toward conflicted and confounding educations into the pith of the pith of failure, which are simultaneously the most beautiful educations imaginable into countless instants of fleeting, fraught, desperately inadequate instants of hope.
(Image: Jana Schröder’s Specshift L2, 2020)