Thursday, May 7, 2009

The American Novel and American Politics I

Walter Benn Michaels has written an article, "Going Boom," in BookForum 15, 5 (February - March 2009) deploring the failure of the last quarter century’s American novelists to deal with the social forces that have so victimized Americans. What history American novelists have recounted has not served as forceful and robust criticism; novelists such as Toni Morrison, Colin McCarthy and Philip Roth have only been “caretaking,” that is remembering event of yesteryear, not depicting those events as on-going and/or recurring phenomena. Writes Michaels, we have had novels of family endurance and of breakdown, but none about the institutions that govern American life and that have caused the havoc of this contemporary crisis. Novelists, he argues, have avoided looking into the underlying conditions that bring a society that lives within the institutions of the free market principles and practices into such hardship.

Strangely enough, writes Michaels, the novel that touches closest to these issues and that points to the contradictions in American life – hyper profit-making and hyper commodification – is Ellis’s American Psycho. We need more “novels of manners in which the hierarchy of the social order is always at stake,” or television shows like The Wire, which is “about institutions – unions, schools, political parties, gangs,” about “the world neoliberalism has produced, rather than he world our literature pretends it has.” Michaels concludes that “The Wire is like a reinvention of Zola or Dreiser for a world in which the market is going out rather than coming in.”

Bravo! Mr. Michaels. But let us note that Dreiser, and another author Michaels mentions, Edith Wharton, novelists of critical inquiry into the intersection of American manners and the market system, have been dead for sixty or more years, not just a quarter century. In fact, the American authors who did write of the destructiveness of the free market system, including Dos Passos and Steinbeck, wrote their great social novels in the thirties; such writing barely appeared after the forties! The writings critical of the economic power system (which is a proper name for the market system) end with a few pages of Norman Mailer’s 1947 Naked and the Dead and Arthur Miller’s 1947 All My Sons and his 1949 Death of a Salesman. Saul Bellow, for example, never took on any of these issues. His 1955 Augie Marsh deals with close up relations and metaphysical ruminations. Nor do Herzog or Humboldt’s Gift or any other of his works enter into the mise en scène where the plays of power condition American life. And before one rushes to Bellow to find evidence to the contrary, let me quote him from an interview in the Nouvel Observateur by Fritz Raddatz of March 7, 2002, which I translated from the French, where he stated that “I have one regret that I am able to formulate very precisely: in all my novels, I have avoided speaking about the great events of the century. I have never attempted, even timidly, to make place in my work for those feelings that were in the air. It is in this, that I disappoint myself.”

The relevant novels of the sixties and seventies were largely concerned with the absurd, the feelings and sensibilities of persons affected by run-away technology and out-of-control technocracies, works written by Philip K. Dick, Joseph Heller and Barry Malzerg, and the shell shock and benumbing induced by war by, among others, Kurt Vonnegut and David Rabe. Nor did John Updike’s much celebrated Rabbit series -- Rabbit Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1970), Rabbit is Rich (1980) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) -- present a view of structure coming to bear upon the individual. The series traces Rabbit’s drift into despair over the course of his lifetime. The first novel was typical of the apolitical imagination of the American Biedermeier – the 1950s -- its protagonist living within his family and small town worlds, untouched by larger forces. In the second novel, Updike introduced the political into Rabbit’s life by having Rabbit listen to his fellow salesman speak against the war in Vietnam, and to a black radical to whom he listens with some growing comprehension – at least until white racists burn down his house and the black man moves on -- but in no way does Rabbit become radicalized himself. In the third novel Rabbit is one-third partner in his late father-in-law’s auto business, suffers through the oil crisis and now sells Toyotas, and is preoccupied with his son’s failures and his own love life. Nor does Rabbit come to grips with the larger social reality in the fourth and last book of the series. His life is virtually internal, reactive to family crises, to business, and to his lovers. Updike chronicles events, but for the greatest part they have no significance as regards Rabbit’s life. In short, the Rabbit series did not amount to the kind of imaginative literature developed by the older social novel writers who attempted coherent accounts of the social forces that shape the lives of representative types.

Think about Miller’s career. During the 1960s and beyond he wrote retrospectively, or about family breakdown. Or think of Mailer, whose 1964 American Dream seemed to make entrée into the place where deeper power and politics reside. Mailer was our best progressive novelist: think about his books on the moonshot and the CIA. But he never developed the themes regarding the supposed free market, monopoly power and neo-fascism that mark those few pages of The Naked and the Dead. Neo-fascism may be to the side in this era well past the McCarthy years, but the Patriot Act is still on the books. Today, a half –century later, the seeming contradictions between free market and monopoly power are not contradictions at all: managers of non-regulated mergers and financial packages that create new forms of wealth have wound us up on the present crisis. American Psycho may have lifted the lid on the psychosis below: how well we might have been served, indeed, must be served, by a relevant imaginative and contemplative literature! Any new social novelist out there?


Rezman said...

Great article, thanks for sharing it.

I can't think of a contemporary novel that explores the actual world that neo-liberalism has produced either. Or at least none that has crossed my path.

Although friends insisted I would love it, I don't know THE WIRE, mostly because I was devoted to OZ, Tom Fontana & Barry Levinson's excellent prison drama, and never put the time aside to watch THE WIRE when it first ran on HBO.

Wally Shawn's dramatic monologue, THE FEVER, is remarkable because it shows audiences how American exceptionalism looks to folks who are its victims (think shock and awe). Yes, the protagonist becomes sick from confronting the unfiltered reality while visiting another country, but Shawn explores personal dimensions, not social ones--the emotional core of an individual who realizes that his comfort and privilege is predicated on the backs of others. (HBO adapted THE FEVER in 2004 as a TV movie with Vanessa Redgrave.)

Shawn's work is the dramatic sibling of Naomi Klein's nonfiction book, THE SHOCK DOCTRINE, which yokes neo-liberalism to deadly violence in a continuous line from slave traders to Abu Ghraib (via the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the "torture cure" for Latin America's lower and middle classes of any notions of social responsibility and common good). If nothing else, THE FEVER reveals the emotional core of a world of bloodless commodities.

If you add Howard Zinn’s and Noam Chomsky's insights to the mix, you get a picture of how the ultimate reality of the neo-liberal world is hidden in plain sight at the center of the empire, but neither of these writers are novelists. (I've read Zinn's MARX IN SOHO, but it really isn't a play, it's a dramatization of an idea; his PEOPLES' HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES is a far more important tool to dispel collective amnesia.)

Much has been made of the Wachowski Brothers' trilogy, THE MATRIX, as a potent social metaphor, but THE MATRIX presents far too benign a fate for enslaved humanity! The Wachowskis have us believe that the machines need pacified humans merely to generate heat as an energy source, and that an un-awakened (or repentant) human has a relatively pleasant existence as part of the matrix. But the neo-liberal world is one of suffering and sickness and death to those whose resources are stolen, whose children are enslaved, and whose governments are "liberated" for free market orthodoxy. And predictably, the very beneficiaries of this corporatist apparatus are subjected to no less brutal control by creating a flat world where profit is the only value, so diseases rot away bodies and minds, and social systems cripple human beings by convincing them that they're unconnected bags of flesh who must only look out for #1! (There's no downside for the elites here; they profit from causes and cures alike.) No wonder that multi-dimensionality appears like fantasy in a world ruled by a single value.

David Mamet's GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS could be a cousin to Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN; Mamet loves to explore con artists and the con. He hasn't turned his attention to the master con game yet, but I wouldn't write him off.

The late George Carlin was a master of rhetoric, and he spoke very clearly and humorously about the truths that must never be said aloud. Carlin had us laugh as he insulted our greed and expressed little sympathy for our aspirations to be safe and comfortable.

Barry Seldes said...

A mighty post indeed! Actually, I don't know THE WIRE either. Nor do I know THE FEVER, much as I admire Wallace Shawn, but I've put it at the top of my NETFLIX list. I will have to go back to the MATRIX films, and friend Rezman is right about Glen

But I await the writing of the great novel fit for our times.