Sunday, November 17, 2013

Novels, Screens And Reality

This fortnight's Sunday Guardian column.

In an interview some years ago, Zadie Smith remarked that one of the challenges facing a novelist today was that of how to capture the reality of a person’s life at a time when he or she spent hours daily gazing into computer or phone screens and communicating via e-mail and text messages. In a hard-hitting piece in Slate this week, Daniel Sarewitz called this dependence “a problem we are powerless to resolve”; it’s time to acknowledge that “the moment you and your date finish ordering dinner you pull out your smartphones and start texting so you don’t have to face the possibility of silence; that you have come to believe that you more-or-less actually have read War and Peace because you read the plot summary on Wikipedia; that you find out what your kid is up to not by talking to her but by monitoring her Facebook page; that at work you simply cannot go more than 10 minutes without surreptitiously checking email no matter how much else you have to do”. Quite so.

Given that fiction is supposed to have the advantage of being able to create and map interiority -- our mental lives -- how does it do so convincingly at a time when so much of this interiority is informed and shaped by digital communication?

Some writers, mirroring the epistolary novels of the past, have simply incorporated e-mails wholesale – such as Matthew Beaumont’s e. Others have inserted e-mail messages into their narratives, as with David Gilbert’s recent & Sons. Such efforts seem forced – too obvious attempts to mirror new ways of communication. The problem is that such forms are so rooted in their own contexts that it’s hard, if not impossible, to knit them seamlessly into longer narratives. This is especially marked when you look at instances when text messages appear in novels – Gilbert’s & Sons again being one such. Then again, a new story by Jeffrey Eugenides in the latest New Yorker has a character playing Words with Friends on his phone, and this is more efficiently done, possibly because describing it is like recounting a game of Scrabble.  

One way out would be to take a leaf from the way we write reported speech – to write, for example, that a text message informed a character that he would be late, or that her Facebook status indicated that she was depressed -- instead of actually replicating content. But this, obviously, would create distance and lack the immediacy of direct dialogue.  Perhaps someone needs to come up with the equivalent of quotation marks for all digital communication.

It's an issue that can't be side-stepped, because it's going to come across as increasingly quaint to have novels of contemporary life peopled by characters who aren't engaged in periodic bouts of exchanging notes and gleaning information via screens. (Those writing historical novels must be heaving sighs of relief.) Movies, of course, face the same issue, and they're also going to have to deal with it in ways that fit into that medium -- one can't have, for example, a modern-day romantic comedy in which the protagonists don't exchange text messages or check Facebook pages obsessively. The next Richard Curtis film could well be titled Four Weddings, a Funeral and Several Tweets.

As for an allied issue, that of being unable to sustain attention because of digital distraction, there seems to be a mystifying rearguard action by novelists of simply writing longer works. After Richard House’s The Kills, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, to mention just three, comes the news that Knopf has paid close to $2 million for City on Fire, a debut novel by Garth Risk Hallberg that’s 900 pages long. One hopes it’s a worthwhile investment. As for me, I’ve found succour from such distractions in the pages of crime novels. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to return to the squares of Venice and the continuing exploits of the valiant Commissario Brunetti.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Meditation And Narration

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

In a blog post for the New York Review of Books last week, Tim Parks voiced a concern that many, in various ways, have recently expressed. Speaking of conventional, character-driven novels, he asks whether “the whole exercise has become largely irrelevant”.  “More and more,” he goes on, “I wonder if it is possible for a novel not to give me the immediate impression of being manipulated toward goals that are predictable and unquestioned”, referring to the typical structure and intent of such works, with their dilemmas, crises and portrayals of overcoming suffering. Despite digital distractions however, as he writes, such novels are clearly still preferred by many, perhaps because they create the illusion that life can be given a definite and reassuring shape.

Dissatisfied with such “reinforcement of a fictional selfhood”, he holds up the work of Bernhard, Beckett and even Lydia Davis as an astringent counterpoint. For his own part, he’s tried to express a different vision of self and narrative in his new novel, Sex is Forbidden. (That, at least is the title of the paperback; originally, it was the rather more sedate and appropriate The Server.) So, how well does Parks succeed in his aim?

The novel, written in the first person, deals with ten days in the life of Beth Marriot, a young woman at the Dasgupta Institute, a mindfulness meditation centre. (Much of the observed detail seems to be drawn from Parks’s own experiences, written about earlier in his memoir, Teach Us to Sit Still.) “Most people’s worries are about the future,” feels Beth, “but the longer I stay at the Dasgupta Institute the less certain I am about what happened before.” Parks makes her feel this way because, of course, the point of such vipassana practice is to stay focused on and aware of the present moment’s thoughts, sensations and emotions. And because human beings are story-telling machines – our minds join the dots and create causation – to lift ourselves out of such habituated ways is easier said than done. (One could almost say that the Buddha taught that one must transcend stories by becoming aware of them.)

This, then, is a disingenuous stream of consciousness narrative in which the present is continually being interrupted by the past and future. Beth has spent close to ten months at the retreat as “a server”, one who attends to cooking, cleaning and other chores, trying to forget her past life as a singer in a band, her devoted band-mate and her affair with an older painter, ending in a tragic accident. As she puts it, “I gave up everything for the band and I gave up the band for nothing”. Such thoughts continue to intrude no matter how much she tries to stay present: “The breath crossing the lip. The in-breath. The out-breath. Right effort. Right concentration. Right understanding.”

She finds further distraction when she appropriates and reads the diary of a fellow meditator; both of them are bending the rules, which do not allow reading and writing during the retreat. (“One thing leads to another when you think and write your thoughts down. False empty fantasies, painful formations of the mind, sankharas.”) The diarist, a publisher with a troubled personal and professional life, sometimes seems to echo Parks’s own thoughts: “What do stories do but glamorize pain?...all the pretentious sagas…They glamorize suffering.”  

In various ways, we see how Beth’s relationships with those at the institute mirror those that she’s left behind. She hasn’t escaped her stories, just changed the context. Parks’s narrative, then, doesn’t become an anti-novel or anything like it, being constrained by the strictures of the form. This is something he himself ruefully confesses in his NYRB piece: “the tale’s literary nature, its very presentation of itself as a novel…inevitably dragged it back toward the old familiar ploys, the little climaxes, the obligatory ironies.” For a novel that resists narrative, we’ll have to turn again to Beckett and a different sort of meditation, that of Murphy in his armchair.