The fuel-burning binge we’ve been on for the past 150 years, and especially the last 60, and increasingly and accelerantly, has brought into view the most dangerous threat in the brief history of our civilization. It’s become possible to glimpse the disappearance of so many things, not just glaciers and species but ideas and institutions too. Things may never be so easy or orderly again.
The Intellectual Situation
If there is anyone working a job who would stop doing that job should his income—and all his richest compatriots’ incomes—drop to $100,000 a year, he should not be doing that job. He should never have been doing that job—for his own life’s sake.
I arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, too late to get a press pass, so I watched Evo Morales’s inauguration on television with my aunt and some friends. There were nearly a dozen of us—my aunt is a political exile from Peru, and many of her old friends had made a special trip. We reserved a long table on the second floor of a Peruvian restaurant called Machu Picchu. It was a celebration, with drinking, laughter, applause. There was a brightly colored swing-set in the room, and periodically the cook’s daughter would climb on. The noise was just awful, but no one seemed to notice.
I was paying close attention, and not only because I’d been able to sleep in my own bed the night before. This was a welcome departure from our usual stay-on-point talks about drugs, intravenous lines, and breathing machines. ICU doctors often find themselves delivering fantastically expensive and brutally invasive care to patients with little chance of survival. Such practices are based on complex assumptions about our society and what it values—but for doctors, the time to step back and think about those assumptions is a rare luxury.
In George Mikes’s series of books, carrying titles like How to Be a Brit or How to Be an Alien, a book on How to Be a German is missing. I admit there might be practical reasons for this negligence. But there may also be metaphysical reasons: it is not possible to be a German.
His abiding obsessions were taxes and weapons. He thought taxes should be cut always and everywhere, except for poor people, and he thought America should build as many weapons as possible. The more weapons we had, in his view, the less likely we were to need them. But he believed that occasionally we might need them to bomb other nations that were trying to get them too.
In the name of science, I recently read from cover to cover the Best American Short Stories anthologies of 2004 and 2005. Many of these stories seemed to have been pared down to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns. An indiscriminate premium has been placed on the particular, the tactile, the “crisp,” and the “tart”—as if literary worth should be calibrated by resemblance to an apple (or, in the lingo of hyperspecificity, a McIntosh). Writers appear to be trying to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words. The result is celebrated as “lean,” “tight,” “well-honed” prose.
I do think there is a sharp historical boundary between postwar or midcentury American writing and “contemporary” writing, what we have now. The boundary is about 1973, the year of the oil shock, the beginning of the Watergate scandal, a time by which the civil rights movement and the New Deal Democratic Party had definitively dissolved into a collection of narrowly focused movements and interest groups, and the utopian and antinomian impulses of the ’60s had lost their credibility and momentum.
A rising tide may float all boats, but a receding one grounds first those with the deepest keels. Literary scholarship has a particularly deep one. Perhaps academics stopped writing for laypeople because laypeople stopped reading them, rather than the other way around.
Viewing Latin American literature from the US side, I’m not really sure that García Márquez—a writer whom I admire unreservedly—is the most influential writer for Latin Americans. It’s clear that, like Borges, he is among the best known and most respected. But perhaps García Márquez has been more influential among foreign editors, critics, and readers. The result is a reflex, or almost zombie-like compulsion, to demand Latin American novels that contain many large families and flying people and jungles and volcanos. Roberto Bolaño, on the other hand, serves as the perfect missing link between the Boom writers and those of my generation.
I believe that literary criticism has most often been done best by writers themselves. These are the critics whom I have prized; writers who wanted their criticism to do what imaginative writing (at its best) does: bring to consciousness the feeling intelligence trapped inside the wilderness of mind and spirit that we all stumble around in. I prize this kind of criticism because it understands intuitively that it is in an aroused consciousness that the solace and excitement of literature are to be found.
As vague a categorical designation as “literary fiction” is, it bestowed on non-genre novels the gift or illusion of a brand, a more secure niche and identity within the expanding universe of consumer goods. It is both a comfort and a necessity for editors anxious to know what sort of books they are acquiring and for salespeople needing to know what sort of product they are selling.
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, or of taking up terrible private or historical suffering as subject matter.
This criticism of readers is as old as prophetic castigations of idol worshippers. The concern has usually been that reading will lead to wrong actions or no action—to immorality or passivity. So Wordsworth thought that the surge in popular novels and plays at the beginning of the industrial revolution had plunged English minds into “savage torpor.” He recommended we read more to cure ourselves—more Wordsworth. Novelists too wrote against the wrong kind of novels and the wrong kind of readers. This remains one of the strongest unsettled legacies of the long tradition of the modern novel, from the era of the French Revolution, through Flaubert and Tolstoy, up through today.
I had never expected to end up in southeastern Turkey, an area the Kurds consider Kurdistan and the Armenians regard as the heart of Medz Hayk: Great Armenia. And it had been great, once—in the first century B.C., to be exact—when the Armenian Kingdom stretched from Syria to Azerbaijan. It’s a long story, but things went downhill from there. Two thousand years later, in the United States, I grew up surrounded by an unabashed hatred for Turkey and Turks.
How much money does a writer need? In New York, a young writer can get by on $25,000, give or take, depending on thriftiness. A slightly older young writer—a 30-year-old—will need another $10,000 to keep up appearances. But that’s New York. There are places where a person can live on twelve or thirteen thousand a year—figures so small they can be written out.
The lure of a permanent childhood in America partly comes from the overwhelming feeling that one hasn’t yet achieved one’s true youth, because true youth would be defined by freedom so total that no one can attain it. Presumably even the spring-break kids, rutting, tanning, boozing with abandon, know there is a more perfect spring break beyond the horizon. Without a powerful aspiration to become adult, without some separate value that downplays childhood for sharper freedoms in age and maturity, the feeling of dissatisfaction can proceed indefinitely, in the midst of marriage, child rearing, retirement, unto death.
Fiction and Drama
I woke to the ringing of the phone. Darkness had fallen in the room. I picked up; I knew it was her. Even before I was conscious of knowing, I knew. It was her voice, her breath, it was practically her face, and along with her face a thousand moments of happiness came rising from the past, gilded with sunlight.
I knew the minute I stopped expecting the shark, the minute I took my mind off the idea of shark, like a watched pot, that’s when a shark would appear, and since I didn’t want to miss that appearance, I kept my mind focused on the water, trying not to think about anything other than water, but I must have been thinking something, and I must have been in the middle of thinking it when a white underbelly flashed by, huge and white and slightly above me, and then suddenly the bait, which had been floating in the water, was gone.
A man and a woman inhabit the room. For the most part, because there is only one chair, only one of them sits. Sometimes both of them stand. Occasionally, when the man occupies the chair for too long, and the woman tires of standing, she sits down on the floor, her back against the concave wall. The man is tall, birdlike, his hair black, brushed back, shiny. He wears a dark blue suit and light glasses. The woman is large, her face round, froglike, and kindly. She wears a long, colorful skirt, white sneakers, and a loose white shirt untucked. Sometimes, a dun bandanna covers her head; when it is off, visitors can see that her cropped hair is silver with gray.
Finally, I had an audience. I helped a pitcher understand the implications of his team’s hazing ritual. I encouraged indecisive dancer/premeds to double major. When a guy apologized for being sweaty, I got him a small towel. I made people feel good. Then I took a break. Then I forgot that I was taking a break. Spring was here. Jake was here. Also Josh. One dancer/premed dropped medicine, just did dance. He danced with honors.
The two brothers now comprise a small society at war with itself, their two heads fighting for control of their single body. After a minor operation, which lets Adkin understand his brother’s curious mode of vocalization, and a storytelling game, Adkin resumes his attempts on Misha’s life; each time, by failing to understand the shared corporeal nature of their existence, he injures himself at least as much as he does his brother.
The narrator of Never Let Me Go has a soft plain style: “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we used to have some form of medical every week. . . .” This is how you might talk to an equal, someone similar to you socially or economically, or, as it turns out, biologically. The strange thing about this ordinary sentence is that the narrator, Kathy H., is a clone, and when the reader discovers this, that “you” opens out beyond the mere conventional second-person to become part of the novel’s drama.
You already know a lot about William T. Vollmann if you know that the abridgment of his seven-volume book about when to kill people is still 733 pages long. He missed a couple of spots. It is not enough that Death farted; instead, “Death joked and drank and vulgarly farted.” It is not enough that guns have a use; instead, we read about “what Plato would call their ‘virtue’—their function, their raison d’être, the thing they do best.” A man “died and fell forward, his face swelling and purpling with lividity.” Yes, but what color was his prose?
We (in Europe!) don’t have this kind of formal distinction between dating someone and having a boyfriend. You just meet people, usually because you have friends in common, and then see what happens. And as soon as you get along well with somebody (with whom you sleep), you can say he is your boyfriend, even if you’re not sure you’ll marry him . . . you don’t need a conversation to decide if you’re “allowed” to date different people at the same time. Just in case you go to Europe.