Monday, July 5, 2010

"As Seen by Toads": Week 2, #1: The New Yorker, 20 under 40 issue

So, apparently, according to a recent article in The Nation, Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary gave this definition of realism: "The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads." Now, as it so happens, when I started playing around with fiction a few years back, it seemed to me that what I was interested in trying to do was, for a lack of a better term, psychological realism. I went to workshops where some people wrote about wise talking flounders (they were usually the guys) and the others (me and usually many of the women) wrote about a variety of topics that were nonetheless about homo sapiens in a world basically resembling ours, interacting with each other in ways that recall the way non-fictional people sometime interact with one another. Seeing as how the talking flounder camp liked to see themselves as heirs to every modernist, postmodernist, and magical realist they could name (and boy could they name them!) and tended to look at the actual world folks as backwards: too nineteenth century, too domestic, too female. Perhaps I was being sensitive. I developed this little rap about the 30s and realists being the real radicals and all that.

After playing with writing for a while, though, and reading fiction through that experience, I started to look at it differently. I started to think that there's no such thing as realism. A great teacher told me what I was trying to do was "describe how the happening happens," which might be another way of saying psychological realism, but it doesn't feel like realism when you try to do it. I don't mean that in that "artistic creativity doesn't fit those tiny critical boxes" kind of way. I just mean that I've started to think about the way all good fiction heightens, punches up, alters things. Contemporary fiction we often think of as realist often does this by condensing and distilling time, scene, character: hence the iconic role of extra spaces between paragraphs. Of course, you learn in school that modernism was where you get authors playing with time, like the great "Time Passes" from To The Lighthouse. But every work of fiction deals with the central question: how to tell a story that may take place over five years in ten pages, or ten minutes in 30 pages. The backwards time structure of Underworld didn't do that much for me, but I chocked up when a character's old age is described with something like 'time had passed quickly, like the time in a novel.' The great realist writers always have those moments where you feel the strangeness of experience recalled and condensed, the strangeness of life.

So. My favorite story in the "20 under 40" issue (which had 8 of the 20) was the most 'experimental' or whatever, Jonathan Safran Foer's "Here We Aren't So Quickly" It describes a lifelong relationship and marriage through a series of selected details. It's not told from the point of view of old age recalling youth; instead it's a voice removed from the whole of life, looking down at the string and trying to figure out why one point should mean more than another:
And here we aren't, so quickly: I'm not twenty-six and you're not sixty. I'm not forty-five or eighty-three, not being hoisted onto the shoulders of anybody wading into any sea. . . Everything else happened - why not the things that could have?
Two of the stories, by Joshua Ferris and Gary Shteyngart, try to take their punch up from reality through humor and satire, and really really didn't work for me. Basically, their satire revolved around the fact that some people in Hollywood are assholes, except aspiring screenwriters who are nice but a little lazy (Ferris) and that the future will be bleak because no one will read books or really try to communicate except our nebbishy hero. Then there were the stories by Philipp Meyer and Rivka Galchen, which really didn't seem to have any punch up at all: that is, they described things that happened to people. And as far as I could tell that was all they did, and it wasn't enough, though of course I could be missing something. I feel this a lot with memoirs: it's not that writing about yourself is self-induglent, just that when self-indulgent people do write about themselves they think what happened is interesting enough.

"Why not just say what happened?" Joan Didion asks in "On Keeping a Notebook." She's restless with herself, mistrusts her accounts of things, she bears down and squeezes the rock.
ETA: Hmm, the June 28th story is really good too: a writer uses a terrifying story she hears at a dinner party in her book and dreads running into the person who told it to her. That's about it, but she gets at the strangeness of it, and by coming at it by this angle, with this remove, the original terrifying story holds us in a way it can't when, as in the Meyer story, it's just something that happens. The story is by Nicole Krauss. So, advantage Park Slope power couple.

By the way, in the same issue, the consistently wonderful Ariel Levy gives "kinder face of the right" Mike Huckabee just enough rope to hang himself. His big draw seems to be that no one could picture him in a sex scandal. Because folkies ex-ministers never have them! The secret of his marital success: "I think we both went into it understanding it was for life. . . I've always said, 'If you believe divorce is an option, you'll take it." In the next paragraph, the happy couple goes to a Pat Boone concert where one of the songs contained this similarly moving homage to the sacred marital bond: "What is a wife?. . . A patient soul that picks up my dirty socks and underwear and handkerchiefs and washes them and puts them back in the drawer so she can do the whole thing again, next week"

Earlier, Levy challenges him to make an argument against gay marriage that isn't based on religion or his personal sense of 'ickiness.' He flounders, but he should have just asked Boone. If men marry men, or women women, how do you know who's supposed to wash the underwear?

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