March 26, 2013

Act of the Imagination

The speculative novel is on fire: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, World War Z by Max Brooks, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Reamde by Neal Stephenson are just a few of the massive literary hits of the last few years. While there is plenty of traditional narrative out there, spun by great novelists like Jonathan Franzen and Marilynne Robinson, it's among these speculative novelists that the most vibrant work is being done. We've turned some sort of corner.

For decades great literature was defined by closely observed quotidian lives, battling ennui or inner demons. Protagonists were often middle-aged, divorced or estranged, searching for meaning at a time when their work lives were stagnating, sex was failing them, or drink was consuming them. These stories ended at worst with total Willy Loman-like  failure and at best with a small moment of grace that was as modest as it was fleeting: a Saul Bellow character stepping out into the sunlight, About Schmidt's lost retiree getting a letter from the African child he supported, reflections on a moment of youthful possibility in Olive Kitteridge.

But the themes of disappointment and melancholy that permeate classic works like A Fan's Notes and Revolutionary Road are fast becoming antiquated, their characters more Sad Sack than Antihero. For me, and I suspect others, any appreciation of the fine prose and reflection on life's limitations have been completely subsumed by a massive irritation at the haplessness and passivity of their characters.

Especially when juxtaposed with their new counterparts. In new fiction, internal turmoil has been almost entirely replaced with external conflict. Characters have their back stories, their disappointments, but these are not the center of their lives, nor the motor of the plot. Rather, they are consumed with rebellion against structures of power. In Cloud Atlas, for example, protagonists from six different time periods are pitted against the institutions of oppression of their time: tribal aggression, plantation slavery, corporate corruption, and so on. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is set against the dictatorship-cum-entertainment-colossus of the Capital. In World War Z and other zombie novels like Justin Cronin's The Passage, ordinary people defend their world from an totalitarian death horde. In The Road the father and son struggle for survival in a landscape denuded of life. And protagonists in Neal Stephenson's novels maneuver toward freedom through the twin pitfalls of oligarchy and anarchy: government bureaucracies, terrorist cells, and the all-encompassing reach of technology and surveillance.

What makes these stories great works of art is that, in all these cases, the protagonists are empowered by their capability and moral strength. They have skills. Cloud Atlas's Luisa Rey has her investigative smarts. Katniss has her bow. The zombie fighters have their jerry-rigged generators. Nearly any page of Reamde offers a tutorial on applying one's intelligence to the circumstances at hand. You can see the influence of genre fiction like thrillers here, as well as the influence of superheroes and comic books. And these works would remain in those categories but for the way their authors marry these features with great writing and a moral perspective. Their characters are saved not only by their skills but by their adherence to a moral code in difficult circumstances. Cloud Atlas's Adam Ewing saves a runaway slave at great personal risk. Katniss refuses to kill her friend. The nuclear sub commander of World War Z refuses to launch his missiles. We have moved way beyond the personal here, way beyond middle-age disappointment and the sorrow of old age. And yet these novels remain humane and important, because what's more personal than the way we act upon the world in the few years that we have here?

This new strain of literature may also be born out of our current understanding of morality. Several decades of liberal thinking has brought us an awareness of global impacts, an attention to the Other, and admonitions to Think Globally Act Locally. We understand that you can't be considered a good person if you're faithful to your wife but pollute the water source of an Indian village; if you donate to local charity but use military power recklessly; if you celebrate freedom but destroy the ozone. The stage upon which we act is so much larger than our homes and offices. That's why so many of these novels are global: the action takes place in China, or a Pacific island, or the Philippines, and the protagonists are global too. And it's not just a Western man acting on a global stage, but the global stage acting itself. When Briony, the young budding writer in Atonement first realizes that it may be "just as vivid" an experience to be her sister as it is to be herself, she's taken the first step in empathy: realizing that others' lives are just as real as one's own. This new literature takes that perspective global.

A third influence may be our realization that the world is changing, fast and in scary ways. We can see, maybe for the first time, that we are capable of really destroying our world. Not just a generation, as in World War I or II. Or a particular area, as in the Irish potato famine or the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s. We see glaciers literally falling apart before our eyes and hear that the beautiful city of Venice may disappear under the water within a century and begin to envision a disaster that is global and irreversible. Perhaps the apocalyptic novel is such a huge American phenomenon because we want desperately to believe we can McGyver our way out of it. These protagonists operate in hugely complex, risky worlds, but overcome through their persistence, intelligence, and creativity. It may be wishful thinking but only through these traits we can avoid the disasters in the first place. These novels feel like a challenge: get off your asses; stop moping; get to work.

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