Most novelists work in a formal tradition so conservative as to feel like second nature, and fiction as practiced as an art form over the almost two centuries since Austen and Stendhal has altered strikingly little in comparison with painting and sculpture, popular as well as classical music, poetry and even the theater, not to mention the young arts of photography and film. Considered as a form, the novel is not very accommodating to the new, and probably the most recent book to change the practice of novelists in general was Madame Bovary; it begins with Flaubert that today most writers suppress direct authorial commentary and avail themselves on occasion of free indirect discourse.

We can recognize something we might call the perennial novel. Mixing description of the world, ostensibly realistic dialogue, and psychological insight in proportions that now seem classical, and written in an often elevated but always familiar version of the language of the day, the perennial novel situates plausible human characters in a relatively narrow segment of a known society (our own or a historical one) and chronicles its protagonist’s defeat by or emergence from a crisis. There is little or no essayistic component to the prose. The author may allow for a touch of allegory, but that aspect can never dominate as it does in Bunyan’s or Sidney’s prose romances or some of Conrad’s shorter novels or all of Saramago’s full-length ones. Symbols may be present, but can never loom in concentrated form above the narrative (as with Kafka’s castle) or flourish in baroque profusion (as with the ecclesiastical imagery in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree). Likewise, the perennial novel would turn into something else if its descriptions ever attained the promiscuous exactitude of Claude Simon or Robbe-Grillet, if it were ever overrun by naturalistic speech as in Henry Green or William Gaddis, or if it ventured such speculative and exhaustive forays into psychology as Proust’s or Musil’s. Its signature, again, is a classical-seeming disposition of these elements, even as their proportions shift over time.

The perennial novel does not yet openly sabotage its verisimilitude in the way of much postmodernism; it seems unlikely it ever will. But its fidelity is to realism rather than reality. Describe the sensuously available world with too much accuracy, listen to speech with too keen an ear, or track the progress of a thought or an emotion too minutely and you will have immediately violated the canons of realism, as you will also have done if you leave your plot hanging too completely open at the end. And morally, too, the perennial novel tends toward a sort of stealth stylization; its apportionment of good and evil traits among its characters adheres, even now, much more to narrative tradition than to the actual distribution of virtue in the world. This is especially true of so-called genre fiction, but true enough of the perennial novel as a whole. Even the avowedly realist novel derives its realism from conventions at least as much as its conventions from reality. Its natural mode is thus to be an unconscious pastiche of itself.

Of course bad and mediocre novels belong overwhelmingly to the slow-cooking culture of the perennial novel; but who besides an ideologue feels that the mode debars greatness? There is the perennial novel and then there is another kind of novel (on which more in a moment), but these categories don’t exactly correspond to high and low. Amid abundant perennial mediocrity, many impressive but formally unadventurous novels still get written, distinguished by the acuteness of perception and insight that somehow manages to elude the snares of realist convention. Very often the novelist’s acuteness seems involved with the introduction of literally novel subject matter; an uncontroversial example might be the Indian diaspora of V. S. Naipaul’s Trinidad, rarely if ever treated in fiction before The Mystic Masseur. Even John Updike’s suburban rounds of adultery, material that today seems hardly to permit anything but a hackneyed treatment, was fresh and new (Updike might say “nubile”) in the first decades after Levittown and the Kinsey Report. And in both A House for Mr. Biswas and Rabbit, Run, to use these examples only for their convenience, we can note the coincidence—which probably isn’t one—of an acute visual sense with a notable refusal of sentimentality; we feel that the writer is being, in both senses of the term, clear-eyed.

If today the best novels in the perennial mode seem to come from marginal communities or peripheral countries, this certainly owes something to the metropolitan reader’s flattery of the exotic; but it also has to do with the fact that standardized representations haven’t yet covered all things under the sun. The notorious problem of our American generation with sincerity versus so-called irony, including the trouble in distinguishing one from the other, derives from the condition of feeling walled off from your own experience behind a barricade of culture, of representations, of things already achieved. Hence the strong appeal for many novelists of adopting a child’s perspective or a childish one (children being seen as heroically naïve), or of taking up terrible private or historical suffering as subject matter (“I like a look of agony, / Because I know it’s true—”). Unfortunately the sentimental pieties attaching to childhood and to innocent suffering make it especially hard to depict those things honestly, without recourse to cliché. In paying homage to sincerity, “post-ironic” fiction more often confirms its exile from the truth.

Another increasingly common tactic for the perennial novelist wishing to escape his own sophistication is to pastiche one or another form of genre fiction (the policier, historical romance, et cetera), and from behind his pages peek out at the reader with a wink. And sometimes genre pastiche will put an old form to genuinely new use: one example would be Kobo Abe’s Möbius strip of a detective novel, The Ruined Map. More often, the winking use of generic trappings is just a flirtatious confession of bad faith. The writer knows he’s imprisoned in generic conventions, knows he has no real critical perspective on these conventions, and, with the thin excuse of this knowledge, employs them all the same. Like the metafictionist, the genre pasticheur draws attention to the man behind the curtain; unlike in metafiction, the revelation of falsehood is not meant to point the way toward the reality lying, teeming, everywhere outside the book.

These are so many problems of a more or less sophisticated, more or less metropolitan novelist trying to work in the perennial mode. But there is another mode of novel writing, which might be called modernist except that it began before modernism and has long since outlasted it; which might be called “experimental” if this didn’t suggest a misleading analogy with the cumulative knowledge of the experimental sciences; and which might be called formally innovative, if this didn’t obscure the fact that so many innovations in the history of the novel are the result of adapting to it the techniques of other literary forms (the lyric poem, the stage drama, the prose romance, the personal essay, the journalistic report). True, the modernist novel can claim several genuine and momentous innovations, especially in the portrayal of interior states; but we feel that while this modernist technical array can still be used, it can no longer be added to. This is one meaning of postmodernism: the novel in its formally self-conscious mode has ceased to indicate a historical direction on the model of 19th-century notions of progress, and seems instead to exhibit what Fredric Jameson calls a “spatial proliferation” of formal tendencies.

Still, there plainly exists, under whatever name, a culture of novel writing, formerly modern and now postmodern, that does not take the form for granted, that does not behave simply as comes naturally, that instead finds in the artifice of the novelist’s art an occasion for debilitating self-consciousness or freedom from constraint. And it happens that for this culture the last figure of widely agreed-upon significance is Samuel Beckett (whose last full-length novel, also the final volume of his famous trilogy, was called, it seems appropriately, The Unnameable). In sketches of the postwar history of the novel, the gaunt tall figure of Beckett stands out like no one else. What does his significance signify?

The trilogy begins in a stark enough universe, only a few props (a bicycle, a bed, some stones) distinguishing it from oblivion, and yet we listen over hundreds of pages as the already decrepit narrator relates the entire disintegration of his world and person, leaving him nattering in the void. E. M. Cioran, who knew Beckett in Paris, clearly had his friend’s recent trilogy in mind when, in 1956, he proposed in his essay “Beyond the Novel” that “the only novels deserving of interest today are precisely those in which, once the universe is disbanded, nothing happens.” Adorno, who died in 1969, planned to dedicate his Aesthetic Theory to Beckett; in the opening pages of that unfinished diagnosis of the postwar condition of art, Beckett’s novels offer the prime symptom of a historical situation that overwhelms, paralyzes, and finally renders obsolete the bourgeois subject as he’d come to be known (through, in large part, two centuries of novels).

A generation later, Jameson singled out Beckett’s novel Watt as a precursor of postmodern sensibility, with its inability to remember the past (except as simulacrum) or conceive of the future (except as disaster). It may not be surprising, then, with Adorno and Jameson in mind, to recall what Don DeLillo had his novelist character say in Mao II: “Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see.” The blocked novelist Bill Gray does not elaborate; but DeLillo’s sensibility, with its attention to the attenuated life of the individual and the incommensurability of private experience with the spectacle of contemporary history, has always seemed to coincide at many points with that of the Frankfurt School and its heirs.

James Wood’s perspective hardly aligns with Cioran’s (Wood does not believe the novel is a spent form) or with the perspective perhaps shared by DeLillo and Adorno: in his reply to the editors of n+1, Wood allows that the self may change over time, but “not as quickly as our representations of the self.” In this spirit he complains that there are “no human beings” in Underworld; the implication is that DeLillo has emphasized the novel features of contemporary experience to the exclusion of enduring human problems. And yet Wood agrees with DeLillo, and with the Marxists Adorno and Jameson, about the preeminence of Beckett. From his essay on W. G. Sebald, whom Wood praised more than any other writer active in the 1990s: “Here was the first contemporary writer since Beckett to have found a way to protest the good government of the conventional novel form and to harass realism into a state of self-examination.”1

Wood and DeLillo only hint at an answer to the meaning of Beckett. Cioran and Adorno (the one an inverted vitalist praising inanition and decay, the other a late Marxist for whom only art testifies to the truth of historical experience) have more to say. For them the chief significance of Beckett’s novels is that the world of objects disappears and, with it, the subject. Beckett’s fiction represents the evacuation first of social, then of empirical, and finally of psychological content. The escape from other novelists could only be achieved by turning the trilogy into a true anti-novel; and reading The Unnameable to the end is something like watching the novel starve itself to death.

The meaning of Beckett is something like this: he represents the confessed exhaustion of the psychological novel—after Proust, according to Cioran, had rendered any further “research in the direction of psychological detail superfluous, annoying.” But that would be Beckett’s generally European and specifically French meaning more than his American one, in that the psychological novel has always been more of a Continental genre. Of course headlong monologues on wild or barren interior states have continued to be produced, sometimes even by Americans (e.g., Harold Brodkey), and often, as in Thomas Bernhard, Cees Nooteboom, or Javier Marías, with the shade of Beckett evidently in attendance. Which would suggest that in the end Beckett’s hunger strike was more like a cleansing fast; the psychological novel emerged thinner, perhaps purer, at any rate still breathing. And yet it’s hard to deny that these superb writers nonetheless feel somehow marginal, “literary” in the slightly pejorative sense of occupying a high-end niche in a mass culture they can hardly begin to reflect, much less influence—a topic for another day.

We’re more concerned for now with the stateside meaning of Beckett, his meaning, if we can speculate, for both DeLillo and Wood. And this would seem to have more to do with what Adorno called his “annihilation of reality” than his whittling away of the self. Beckett’s evacuation of content would then symbolize something like this: from now on, for the formally self-conscious novelist, the recovery of content or subject matter is something to be undertaken very deliberately, in the full understanding that when the reality to be represented is a social or historical reality in any of its breadth or complexity, this reality will not present itself spontaneously to the writer as the natural byproduct of his own more or less circumscribed experience, but will instead have to be sought out, pursued, willfully researched and reported on.

For it’s clearly this quality of research that DeLillo (whom Wood censures) and Sebald (whom Wood praises so extravagantly) have in common, and for that matter share with the more encyclopedic fiction of Pynchon, Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, and others. We even see something similar in Roth’s recent trilogy, where the narrator Zuckerman is forever being buttonholed by neighbors unloading on him the cultural-political melodramas that are their life stories; through this transparent device we easily perceive Roth’s own research into McCarthyism, the Weather Underground, and so on. The disappearance of the great world as the novelist’s native inheritance, his feeling of dispossession in terms of subject matter, means that the recovery of the world must be taken up as an open and deliberate project. Sometimes the research is carried out in libraries, as is made explicit in DeLillo’s Libra (with its figure of “the Curator”) and Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Sometimes the better term for research would be reporting, since the novelist has clearly needed to conduct interviews (as in The Emigrants or Vollmann’s Rainbow Stories) or to travel widely with a notebook for the sake of his book.

Sebald thematized his research more explicitly than just about any other contemporary writer, as the psychic compulsion of his doom-haunted narrators. But this should not imply that there is no other or subtler way to do the same thing. What James Wood sees in DeLillo and describes in pathological terms as paranoia is really something else: DeLillo is not laboring under the delusion that It’s all connected so much as he is announcing the thematic arrangement of his material, as if to say, These things I have chosen to connect. Surely this explains the shaggy dog quality of so many recent “social novels”; diverse people are gathered up into narrative relation by a circulating videotape, baseball, accordion, whatever, not because of the intrinsic social significance of the object, but as a way for the author to acknowledge the real uniting thing: the book itself, which stands in for the phantom public. In this way research declares itself in the service of vision, and sociology becomes lyrical. Indeed it’s this manner of revealing the private sources of a public vision that makes the postmodern social novel so superior to that kind of extensively researched social panorama (one version of the perennial novel) that never accounts for its creator’s subjectivity, never discloses the obsessions prompting so much objectivity.

But the postmodern social novel seems by now to have erected its monuments, in America anyway. It’s doubtful that any more will appear this generation. Prophesying the future of fiction is hazardous—and self-interested—but still it’s hard not to wonder whether the old form of the psychological novel doesn’t offer more possibilities to younger American writers. One underexplored thesis is that the tradition of the American psychological novel that might have gotten underway after Faulkner and Ellison was badly hampered by the postwar institutionalization of psychoanalysis and its widespread public acceptance as a discourse. Now that psychoanalysis has lost so much ground to sociobiology and psychopharmacology, so that all that survives of it in public is the blunt repetition of a few therapeutic nostrums, it seems conceivable that the novel in America might achieve its old European role as the main venue for psychological investigation. In a culture where it’s easier to overhear someone on his cell phone than to overhear your own thoughts, this development would have a certain usefulness.

We might wonder, too—it seems one of the biggest questions for the future of literature—whether simple, blameless ignorance on the part of readers and writers alike might not keep the novel going, and permit new instances of greatness. Perhaps a writer in 2025 or 2050, gifted with natural eloquence, fed by unsystematic reading, never having heard so much as a rumor of the mid-20th century’s dream of mass higher education in the liberal arts, will want to create a single unforgettable character—an adulterer, say—or else paint some vast sociohistorical mural. He may never have heard of Emma Bovary or Molly Bloom or Rabbit Angstrom; or she won’t have read War and Peace, U.S.A., or The War of the End of the World, much less all three, certainly not when we haven’t. “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” So reads the first line of Beckett’s first published novel. But what if the sun had no memory of what it had seen the day before? Might it not shed its light less wearily?

The novel practiced as an art form within a consciously evolving tradition was headquartered in France and may be said to have died in Beckett’s room in 1958, not many more than 100 years after its birth, in whatever town you’d like to give as its lieu de naissance. Probably it will never regain the same centrality, the same market share. What endures is a sort of afterlife. But when does one of those ever end? Recall these lines from Beckett’s play Endgame:

CLOV: Do you believe in the life to come?
HAMM: Mine was always that.

Hamm meant that he was in hell, and had been born there. But borrowed as slogan for the novel the words would mean something else; they would mean that the novel, having once died, can now live forever, or for at least as long as our civilization and the memory of it lasts.

  1. Never mind for now the plain untruth of this claim: in the nearly forty years between 1957 (when the final volume of Beckett’s self-translated trilogy appeared in English) and 1995 (when Sebald’s The Emigrants appeared), not a single writer emerged to so much as harass—much less menace or assault—the assumptions of the realist novel? Not Gaddis or Pynchon, Sarraute, Perec, or Robbe-Grillet, Márquez or Cortázar, Grass or Bernhard, neither Abe in Japan, nor Nadas in Hungary, nor Saramago in Portugal: not one of these raised a protest against the probity and smoothness of conventional realism? (For as a political program “good government” means only that officeholders should not embezzle or take bribes and should run their administrations efficiently.) To suggest that no important departures from realism took place over the course of almost forty years is a surreal journalistic convenience; it is also, perhaps, a way to flatter New Republic readers for the failure to keep up, as well as evidence of the profound conservatism of Wood’s tastes. 

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