Fable for the Left
The post-pandemic decline of autofiction and the search for a new leftist counterculture
This is a state-of-literature post on the shift from autofiction to more enchanted narratives in our “post”-pandemic moment by way of a review of two of 2022’s biggest titles: Sheila Heti’s Pure Colour and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona. It runs long. Read it in chapters!
PS: I’ll be discussing my novel The Visitors online with Joshua Cohen (who, uh, just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), this evening at 4pm PT / 7pm ET. Register here!
For a fleeting lockdown moment, it seemed the pandemic might press reset on a lot of tiresome trends: carbon capitalism, commutes, pants that button, laughable healthcare, Trump. The opportunity to radically revise American life through the suspension of the status quo had never seemed so nigh. And now here we are. In pants.
There’s still a chance, however, that the pandemic is reining in the excesses of at least one steady cultural trope: the slick, polished, autobiographical realism that is the dominant mode of Anglophone letters, as well as critics’ endless kvetching over it. Two of the biggest novels of the year arrive precisely as counterforms: incubated during the pandemic and written contra autofiction’s empiricism of the personal, Sheila Heti’s Pure Color and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona arrive on the scene as fables. Heti offers a Book of Genesis riff on the stages of grief, while Moshfegh dips into medieval feudalism to allegorize human nature at its worst.
Both novels take place in distant, ahistorical fable-worlds seemingly discontinuous with ours.
These novels appear in a late-pandemic moment when that dominant mode of highly autofictional, self-aware, more or less politically correct (if not always marked by political depth), and socially urgent literature of the 2010s is not being treated kindly by critics. A cottage industry of essays written against sanctimony literature, trauma plots, the literature of social relevance, against overly self-aware and privilege-checking characters, and so on, points to a burgeoning exhaustion with autobiographical anecdote as the primary way of narrating our world and organizing our experience—perhaps just as much in our politics as in our literature. The original attraction of these novels was condoned as sating a kind of “reality hunger,” per David Shields’ 2010 argument that the alienation of modern life has left us starved for “raw material, seemingly unprocessed” that collapses nonfiction into the novel, jettisoning pretense. Others point to autofiction’s titillation of peeking into someone’s private life, which mirrors the attraction of social media.
It seems to me the American tendency to read as a form of self-improvement and as a substitute for political engagement is the explanation most generally applicable to the genre’s most polemical and oft-cited titles: You can read Salley Rooney’s Conversation with Friends or Normal People to learn about millennial Marxism and email habits; you can read Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts to learn about alt-right online conspiracies and failed leftism; you can pick up Ben Lerner’s 10:04 for a topical dip into the climate crisis, or The Topeka School for its timely examination of toxic masculinity.
Those who grumble about these books tend to saddle the blame with autofiction itself. It’s interesting, then, to consider all the many other autofictional or autobiographical writers who’ve largely evaded the Anglophone nitpicking over relevance-chasing: Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Garth Greenwell, Patricia Lockwood, Sigrid Nunez, Brandon Taylor, Gerald Murnane, and Elif Batuman, to name just a few critically acclaimed prize-winners. It would seem that the complaint is less about autofiction itself and more about the book-specific aims to which it’s leveraged: in the end, Rooney, Oyler, and Lerner can be read as a kind of cultural criticism, while these other writers might be said, above all, to be telling stories inspired by lived experience.
Autofiction as Cultural Criticism
The contested kind of autofictional novel, then, would seem to collapse not just life and fiction (as autofiction always has), but fiction and cultural criticism. How? Katy Waldman of The New Yorker, namechecking Lerner and Rooney among other authors, pinpointed these novels’ reflexive “self-awareness.” A certain type of autofictional novel, Waldman argued, hedges and/or ironizes cultural and political codes mainstreamed by progressives by way of characters' wry admission of their own complicity in the following: privilege, whiteness, the failure of socialism, the hypocrisy of being a (white) socialist who has a lot of privilege, proximity to money, proximity to privilege, proximity to all of the above. No wonder publishing houses have capitalized on the opportunity to present such work as highly culturally “relevant,” or else as outright political engagement; even ironic privilege-checking is a selling point for a certain kind of left-leaning reader who confirms her politics in books.
This sounds like a snarky criticism, but in fact there’s nothing wrong with reading to be more informed, nor with writing stories that aim to offer useful or topical info on cultural trends (also, writers aren’t always in control of how work is marketed). “An interest in practical questions is a characteristic trait born of storytellers,” as Walter Benjamin wrote back in 1933. The question for Anglophone novelists and readers of them lies, maybe, in whether the novel form still has much else to offer besides. Now as in the 1930s, the enemy of literary narrative isn’t realism, as Shields hyperbolically argued, nor auto/fictional convention writ large, but the hysterical hegemony of news. Per Benjamin: “The new form of communication is information.”
The Rise of the Fable?
The post-pandemic novel is rapidly showing signs of return, however, to a kind of storytelling that, in his famous 1933 essay “The Storyteller,” Benjamin framed as more or less the opposite of news. Its forms include the legend, the tale, or, more specifically and with a view toward recent “post”-pandemic novels, the fairytale and the especially fable. Set in a distant, eternal past discontinuous with ours, in a fable, time and history stand still. A fable has a moral, or an anti-moral. It resists specificity in matters of character, setting, and psychology in order to preserve its claim to universal applicability. It’s not an allegory, but an ur-allegory, with many possible referents, and so prefers to deal in (arche)types. In doing so, the fable gestures towards an objectivity and a retreat from cultural relevance that, to the literary discourse of the 2010s, seems very alien indeed.
The conventions of the fable, culled over centuries and even more outmoded than realism, do continue to crop up now and again in the novel, proving their enduring usefulness as well as their foreignness to dominant realist, autofictional modes. Authors of modern fables borrow authority from tradition and narrative distance, granting entrance into philosophical argument, spiritual exploration, and other weighty topics about which it would be risky to claim wisdom on the basis of individual experience alone. Set in a distant world of castles and princesses, Voltaire’s satirical Candide, for example, was a scathing counterargument to “metaphysical optimism,” a philosophical attitude that leads hapless protagonist Candide to uncritically accept the maximalist brutality and violence he encounters as the “best of all possible worlds.” (The moral: stay suspicious when someone tells you that this is as good as it gets.) Adopted with less irony, the modern fable is more likely to become the object of satire or parody itself: Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is a spiritual bedtime story about achieving your dreams; it’s self-help, which is maybe why it’s sold 150 million copies. Most novels in conversation with the fable, however, use basic narrative skeletons to build up more complex allegories, often as a way of smuggling a sense of enchantment, however dark, back into a disenchanted world. This is the case in Angela Carter’s gothic, feminist rewrites of Bluebeard and other tales, or in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, or Dr. Faustus, in which a composer—or perhaps the entire German nation—sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for genius (maybe). The same could be said of all Faustian novels or fairytale rewrites; they draw from the same templates. Sheila Heti and Ottessa Moshfegh, however, have been bold enough to make up their own: Heti, with her risk-taking, aleatory ramble through grief; Moshfegh, with medieval antics mired, like Candide, in masochism and abuse (but without Voltaire’s lighter touch for satirical comedy).
This genealogy of the fable up through the present suggests that even if fable-style storytelling has died out, as Benjamin once suggested, certain genre conventions have lingered. Every once in a while, novels still manage to retreat into parallel, fabulist worlds—even transcend this world, as Heti does in Pure Colour—in the search for truth.
That the pendulum has begun to swing from autobiography to the adoption of these older forms of narrative convention is detectable in other big novels of the past few years as well. Rachel Cusk’s A Second Place (May 2021) shows a hint of the fabular in the “bile-colored eyes” of a lewd man who appears, fleetingly and Faustian-ly, at the opening; the remote, enchanted cottage-on-the-marsh in which the novel unfolds retreats almost into the temporal deep-freeze of the once-upon-a-time. Percival Everett, never an autofictionalist, always a renegade, ran the ghost story and the police procedural through his own personal Vitamix in The Trees (September 2021), in which the spirit of Emmett Till takes vengeance on the purposefully stereotyped—even archetyped—descendants of his white Southern murders. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19 (March 2022) unfolds as a series of decadent, fabulist tales the narrator wrote while working as a real-world grocery clerk; it celebrates, a la Ferrante, the escapist powers of literature as a way of collapsing class hierarchies. And then, of course, there’s America’s favorite pseudo-autofictionalist and -realist Elena Ferrante herself, whose fairytale riff The Lying Lives of Adults appeared in English translation in 2020, and who in In the Margins and in interviews openly acknowledges that all of her novels—including the wildly popular Neapolitan Series—lift directly and prodigiously from archetype, fairytale, and myth.
The Fabular Shift: Political Consequences
The idea that narrative authority rests on tradition, distance, and prose style as a genre cue; on the idea that this type of story has been told before rather than on the authority that it actually happened, has political consequences. It mirrors a broader, older debate over how we ought to go about the business of searching for collective truth, especially through forms of cultural production. Progressives these days – if one can get away with such a phrase – prioritize identity and subjectivity: politics is rooted in direct, lived, and observable experience, or, in absence of direct personal experience, in being open to the experiences of those whose biographies and purviews differ from your own. Alternative political ideologies tend to flow less from concrete experience than from abstract ideals, say equality, freedom, or being “reactionary chic,” values hardly incompatible with progressive identity politics, but which in the diseased arena of tribalist American discourse can often seem to be.
There’s a way in which identity politics (as political worldview) and autofiction (as mode of cultural production) go hand in hand: both embrace and successfully demonstrate the value of progressivism's prioritization of identity throughout the past decade. Identity-based critiques serve as a corrective to the self-satisfied, self-interested person who claims the status quo is already the best of all possible worlds, especially when that optimist tends to be exactly the kind of person the status quo was designed to serve. On the other hand, the growing American exhaustion with identity politics and anecdotal, sociopolitical empiricism is rooted in the recognition that this kind of thinking has its limits, whether or not you believe we’ve reached them: the logical conclusion of worshiping at the altar of identity is to find yourself in a church of one. (Or, to quote Max Weber quoting John Stuart Mill: “If you start purely from experience, you will end up with polytheism.”)
One possible sign of approaching such a limit – in fiction, at least – could be the recent trend of autofictional novels that engage with hand-wringing, progressive identity politics only to ironize them.
On the surface, the resurrection of the fable form in Pure Colour and Lapvona seems to contribute to the growing retreat from these endless debates over progressivist moralism v. everyone else. But speaking purely as a reader, I have only tempered enthusiasm for the alternatives Heti and Moshfegh have mapped out. Fabular though these novels may be, the most lasting impression Pure Colour and Lapvona leave behind is not that of a distant, parallel, fictional world in which absorbing stories take place — and which eventually lead us back to an examination of ours — but of a kind of shock aesthetics. Moshfegh achieves this through her usual mode of concentrated disgust; Heti, also per usual, through doing absolutely whatever she wants. In a world of rule-followers and rule-ironizers, both approaches can seem refreshingly transgressive, if not altogether captivating or enchanting. And to a growing number of readers (and voters?) eager for anything new, transgression holds an attraction unto itself.
Exhibit A: Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona (June 2022)
The fabular shift comes as a special surprise and a paradox for Moshfegh. Her previous psychological novels are better known for their scatological flippancy in the face of narrative convention and tradition than for adopting them; her millennial fanbase applauds this boldness. An enduring flair for blasé, laxative-addicted protagonists (Eileen, My Year of Rest and Relaxation) has earned her work the status of baseline comparison for any novel in which a female character takes a well described shit. With her open disdain for contemporary moralism and literature alike (she once told the press she wrote the Booker-nominated Eileen from a how-to template in order to “be famous”), Moshfegh has actively fashioned herself into something of an apolitical, American Houellebecq—she knows how to troll and stir up the media but also, unlike Houellebecq, how to stay above the political fray. The most interesting tension in Lapvona is to watch how this disdain for traditional storytelling and a commitment to “amoral” narrative worlds chaff against the rigid conventions of the fabular: A tale about a brutal medieval village ravaged by bandits and disease, Lapvona’s witches, magic, and manors are superimposed over a longstanding hostility toward morality, plot, beauty, rising action, and suspense.
The fable’s telltale narrative distance and will toward summary are immediately recognizable from the opening paragraph: “The bandits came again on Easter. This time they slaughtered two men, three women, and two small children…and took with them six geese, four goats, six wheels of cheese, and a cask of honey, in addition to the iron tools.” The specific counts conjure the general: the bandits come from nowhere; there is no historical force. The omniscient narrator, like all knowing consciousnesses culled from a world that never changes, relies on hearsay and gossip: "Ina was older than anyone could say,” we learn of Lapvona’s magical wet nurse. “Some called her a witch because she was blind and yet she was industrious.” The prose is declarative, the description frictionless, the idioms intentionally clichéd, although antiquated turns of phrase (“it was early spring yet”) are thrown in alongside infelicitous neologisms, as when the cost of a lord’s fancy moccasins is estimated at “ten zillins,” the local currency. Tonal shifts accrue as evidence of Moshfegh’s trademark cackle hijacking a fable otherwise told straight.
The elevation of the animal world to the position of advisors and companions is also typical of fables—the magical wet nurse Ina, for example, can interpret the birds’ “every peep and warble”—as is the fact that characters come in types, their personalities manifested in physical traits. The avaricious lord and villain (“Villiam”) is rail thin and insatiable: “He was a glutton, ate for an entire family, stuffed himself at every meal and in between.” Our other leads constitute Marek, a disfigured boy and the product of incestual rape; his mother, the mute Agata, raped as a child by her brother, after which her father cut out her tongue; and handsome shepherd Jude, Marek’s de facto father and Agata’s second rapist. If this brutalized family tree sounds like a sharp left turn from pat, world-building details like church bells that “dong” and lordly moccasins, the feeling is mutual. It is the modular, stomach-turning scene that is Lapvona’s true and basic unit. The disembowelment of a bandit hanged in the opening scene (auditory cue: “bowels spilling out and smacking on the gallows floor") resounds throughout the book.
There isn’t so much a plot (those bandits are a red herring) as a cycling through ravaged seasons, weather events, and incessant brutality. Slowly, however, a design emerges: the rearrangement of characters in a fixed social order, as Villiam’s son, wife, staff, and finally Villiam himself are gradually killed off and, by chance, replaced with the parallel peasant family of Marek, Agata, and Jude. The substitution of rising action for the rearrangement of equally depraved characters in a fixed order turns out to be an inspired trick for delivering the novel's allegorical moral: humans are foul, and as long as we stick around, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
This moral isn’t exactly new, nor should it be; a fable’s wisdom is wisdom precisely because it’s knowledge that’s been passed on before. The reason to listen to such a story isn’t to be wowed by new discovery, but to have recognizable truths be narrated back to us in a way that allows us to receive them as emotionally resonant and new—to actually experience them again. As Benjamin wrote, “This process of assimilation, which takes place deep inside us, requires a state of [mental] relaxation that is becoming ever rarer.” This isn’t the mental slackness of lack of interest, but of lack of occupation; to really listen to a story, you have to have absolutely nothing else to do, to be prepared to leave this world utterly behind. Benjamin goes so far as to describe the willingness of this pre-reading state as a kind of boredom. You could argue that the winking self-awareness of recent millennial and Gen X cultural-critical autofiction has something of the opposite effect: the constant sleuthing to separate the real from the not, the condoned action from the damned, prevents readers from sinking into a deeply rooted narrative structure that lures us first into forgetting, then into remembering, what we already knew before we opened the book.
But neither is this state of deep mental relaxation — dare we even say enchantment? —the aim of Lapvona. That structural stasis is both the moral and the modus operandi leads to no small amount of aimless ping-ponging in the first third of the book: “Jude preferred spring to winter...Contrary to his father, Marek preferred winter to spring...Jude thought the spiky shadows of the trees on the snow were menacing […]" This kind of back and forth extends for pages. It sows the wrong kind of boredom, drawing attention not to a deeply rooted narrative structure that signals the will to communicate or help us assimilate meaning, but to the deliberate, hostile banishment of both. Potential subplots are quashed before they can take hold, resulting in an aleatory progression that leaves the novel’s genuinely inspired ending with exactly the kind of redemptive task its moral precludes—nothing ever changes, no one is saved.
Lapvona’s extreme violence finds ample precedent in Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. But where the fairytale’s brutality is latent, Moshfegh has turned the genre inside out. The inherent barbarism, brought to the surface and untethered from narrative structure or character motive, is transformed into a senseless, free-floating depravity, rendered here with Moshfegh’s own pornographic twist: in one of many unmotivated acts of sexual violence, Villiam forces Marek to stick a grape in his anus and then feed it to a female servant. The point isn’t so much the extreme debauchery this yields, but the uneven tonal treatment. At the level of word choice and scene, the novel’s style can recall, at various moments, the sadism of Game of Thrones, the dark comedy of medieval pastiche (Black Adder, Monty Python, Candide), or the pat prose of The Alchemist (we even have a shepherd lead and plenty of gentle sheep), as well as the dark, psychological chill of a Dostoevsky novel. This sounds like an exciting mix, but ultimately reads as devil-may-care—this is a fable with growing pains.
The opening pages, for example, adhere to black humor’s comic tenet that what can go wrong must, and ad absurdum: “A punch in the jaw left Marek’s tongue flayed by his own teeth. Blood spilt from his mouth on the very spot on the hearth where his mother had supposedly died.” A cartoonish pile-on of misfortune (of a corpse carried up a hill: “His dangling eyeball bobbed up and down with each step") can be darkly comic when the characters are both flat and immortal enough to act as punchlines, too stupid to realize that’s what they are: “Death is like that,” as Jude self-seriously philosophizes. “Like a beggar that follows you down the road. And kills you.” It’s a good joke. These antics, however, sit uneasily alongside more sincere plunges into depraved psychology, as when Jude exults in the memory of raping and impregnating child Agata, then tying her up like a captive animal:
Jude felt sorry for the ewes and fed them extra wheat when they were with child. But he hadn’t felt so sorry for Agata. He had felt proud of her swollen belly. He had loved her, had infused himself into her, unloaded so much into her womb, which was built for him by God. When he ejaculated, he groaned, and felt in that moment that this was the language of God Himself, the groan of creation. […] Later [Agata] fell asleep inside by the hearth, her feet bound by rope to the round rock that would later mark her false grave.
In the deviant psychological tradition forged by Dostoyevsky (or, to even greater excesses, by his Norwegian acolyte Knut Hamsun), we’d follow Jude’s deeply depraved obsession through to its logical conclusion and end up somewhere twisted but liberating at the very highest possible cost. Yet Lapvona’s allegorical style and antic impulses necessitate, like a Charlie Chaplin film, a flatness of character and constant change of direction that precludes this kind of psychological detective work—the hallmark, by the way, of Moshfegh’s earlier novels. In the passage above, that final, brutal flourish of the “false grave” already begins to uptick back into the picaresque absurd.
There’s no doubt that Moshfegh is a force to be reckoned with in Anglophone letters. But with Lapvona, it’s as if she’s adopted the didactic conventions of the fable without quite knowing where to place her disdain for storytelling, or else where to store a more generalized, societal discomfort with forms of communication that can’t be passed off as a self-aware gag. As with many extended gags, I suspect a lot of readers will stick with Lapvona to the end, not necessarily because they’re enjoying themselves, but because to give up feels like becoming the butt of the joke. For some, that’s sure to be joke enough.
Exhibit B: Sheila Heti’s Pure Colour (February 2022)
Sheila Heti’s best-known novels, including the autofictional How Should A Person Be? and Motherhood, are likewise marked by an impish relationship to the reader. But Heti tends to make herself the butt of a joke – the author as “I” is the primary object of criticism and comic relief.
Often named, along with Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard, as one of autofiction's lodestars, Heti’s most recent work has integrated process and the personal so completely as to approach performance art: In a recent newsletter produced for The New York Times, she alphabetized sentences from her diaries in an Excel spreadsheet, trimmed away the fat, and published the sleek results in serial form.
A long-standing interest in advice-seeking (how should a person be?), however, is more familiar territory for the fable. And indeed it’s this idea of the spiritual fable that best describes the experiment that is Pure Colour. An allegorical journey through grief and loss, in this novel, Heti’s previous preoccupations with how an artist should be, and whether that artist should also be a mother, are transliterated to even higher-order questions: What is art, anyway, and what is its relationship to soul? Furthermore, can art help us preserve the souls of those we’ve lost? Put more rhetorically by the novel’s whimsical narrator: “[F]or what is art, but the act of infusing matter with the breath of God?”
The book opens as a riff on the Book of Genesis. Set in the “first draft” of God's creation, the world is no doubt an aesthetic achievement (“You have only to look at the exquisite harmony of sky and trees and moon and stars to see what a good job God did, aesthetically”) but when it comes to the state of human affairs, leaves much to be desired; the narrator is constantly making suggestions for the "second draft." The humans who populate the "first draft," meanwhile, are divided into three archetypes that occasionally manifest as physical traits: birds are self-centered, bears are loving, and fish communal-minded. The birds, the selfish, creative types, are definitely the worst. This is protagonist Mira’s tribe.
As a younger woman, Mira attended a surreal school for art criticism whose eccentric pedagogy (the students practice a lot of tai chi) recalls the Rube-Goldberg scenarios of Alice in Wonderland. After the death of her father, however, grief becomes a kind of extra tuition. Though she trained to assess art, Mira is discovering that the real object of critique was God’s “first draft” all along. The naked tenderness with which she attends her father’s deathbed and her “critique” of the bald fact of mortality are the most moving parts of the book. At its best, Pure Colour demonstrates the impossibility of its titular quest: the attempt to distill pure content—whether “colour” or a soul—from its formal or material container. That our main character has recently lost her father transforms the self-conscious appeal to the children’s tale into a marker of nostalgia for the years when he was still alive.
It is in expanding the novel’s metaphysical fable-logic to explore the fallout from Mira's loss that Pure Color begins to falter. The book draws its early charms from the overconfident persona of a child making up a bedtime story in real time: “This particular story concerns a birdlike woman named Mira, who is torn between her love for the mysterious Annie, who seems to Mira a distant fish, and her love for her father, who appears as a warm bear.” Overindulgence in this whimsical imperiousness, however, slides into a highly uneven second half. As anyone who has spent an extended period with small children can attest, fantastical tales made up on the spot, and which seem to revel in their very inscrutability, are more often an exercise in endurance than enchantment.
As the story waxes ever more pseudo-philosophical, Mira and her father's spirit fall into a leaf and chat dark matter and astrophysics. The narrator invents new personality schemas, with the basic categories of bears, fish, and feathers overlaid with a secondary classification of “fixers,” who implement solutions, and “family” people, who follow traditions: "You want people to come in and fix things for you, to show you what the fixes are. But what is needed is to follow the family traditions." There are gods who inhabit us like "amoebas" or “viruses” in order to more carefully observe our human flaws, but it's unclear how these gods relate to the original God, creator of the “first draft.” Increasingly fanciful metaphors are mixed almost to the point of confusion, as in this description of Mira’s father’s generosity: "His whole life had been a giving to her of his life…like in a fable a poor man pulls a handful of jewels, emeralds and sapphires from an empty [sic] linen sack. So it was as if pulled from his dead body—that empty sack—were the brightest and most shimmering stars, which was his entire spirit."
Pure Colour purposefully sets out to walk the fine line between nuance and nonsense, ambiguity and the outright aleatory; certain passages are meant to be baffling. In the end, however, the novel winds up making too much sense about grief and art (and is lovely when it does) to be received as the monument to nonsense that is Alice in Wonderland, not enough to prevent the reader from wanting to treat it like one. In her utter disregard for the communicability of her private narrative scheme, you might say that Heti dabbles in becoming a child again. In 2022, perhaps it’s nice to think that someone still can.
Can the Leftist Novel Still Be Cool—Counter-culturally So?
The literary shift from politically-coded autofiction to a mode of fiction that aims, in whatever way, to fly in the face of reader expectations, has tenuous connections to another recent cultural debate: that between progressivism and its reactionaries.
The artist seeks the new, the fresh, the countercultural; she historically leans left. Today, those countercultural values have become more or less mainstream, as corporations and Democratic centrists scramble to catch the latest wave of ethics launched on progressive Twitter. How should a novel be in an environment where the left has effectively won the culture wars, or at least cultural power, even as, materially and policy-wise, the country glides frictionlessly ever further to the right? How does the artist push against the expectations of the mainstream cultural left and the absolute insanity of the countercultural right at once?
One thing I know is that my favorite novels tend to hold an allegiance above all to themselves. That isn’t to say that they aren’t political or engaged with the world; all novels draw from life, and as a result very few manage to exist as true ivory towers. I mean to say, instead, that the job of a novel is to create a consciousness and tell a story, and that all its other powers, political and otherwise, stem from this basic magic. The commitment a novel makes to its internal world is also, in some way, adjacent to cool – to genuinely not caring what other people think, about what the trends are, if the hemlines are short or long, or if this draft scores on certain popular rubrics or not. This shedding of self-consciousness is the only way to explain, I think, how so many unsavory (e.g., Dostoevsky was a conservative monarchist) to terrible (e.g. Knut Hamsun was pro-Nazi) people still managed to produce beautiful books: These authors managed, however briefly, not to write from the ideologies that, in their political lives, they unfortunately indulged. This is to say that art and politics are deeply related but not quite one-to-one.
Henry James famously said that the house of fiction has a million windows. I like to think, additionally, that it makes a commitment to its own, internal physics; like any freestanding architectural structure, it follows a certain internal logic in order to stay upright. A novelistic structure that arrives, by contrast, like a dare to the contemporary reader—“The novel is this way because I felt like it!” or “Can you handle it, you prude?”—leans on the newsiness of current cultural trends for structural support. These are often novels with staying power, but they also risk infusing contemporary fiction with the knee-jerk response of the reactionary, if not to progressivism, then to something else in the Anglophone ether. The effect is a kind of negative image of autofictional novels that adopt a self-awareness of current cultural codes as their defining tenet. Both work – the one with, the other against – mainstream expectations as a governing structural principle. Both tacks yield novels we still want to read. But if another aim is to relax the reader into a “process of assimilation,” to borrow Benjamin’s phrase, that helps us to register truths too obvious and numbing to address emotionally in the daily news, then they may miss a trick in achieving the intended effect.
In the meantime, what’s left for the contemporary novel, product of a paranoid, hyperconnected, and reactive age? Maybe it’s the challenge of retreating into a structure private enough to be self-contained without sacrificing communicability wholesale. Is it really so humiliating to be caught constructing something in the hope that, many years from now, the occasional and unlikely visitor will still be interested in poking around inside? Lol, yes… Then again, there’s that sense of an ending: why not try, because soon enough we’ll all be dead.