On Stunning Debut Novels, Or, Why 150-Year Old Books Are Still My Favorites

It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language
― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

I’ve had some extra free time lately, and I’ve been making the make the most of it by doing one of my favorite things, reading novels, from 19th century favorites to contemporary fiction that’s been getting a lot of positive critical attention: “a must-read for 2013”; a “stunning debut novel”*; “a masterful portrait of…whatever current cultural phenomenon/collective neurosis.” I try, I really do—I’m supposedly a literary person, and being well-read presumably means reading outside of a couple of genres (or centuries). I’ve read some current fiction that’s been really enjoyable, admirable, and rewarding.** But too often, making my way through the self-consciously artful prose of this or that contemporary literary star ends up feeling like a chore, throughout the performance of which my attention is always feeble because I’m wishing I were reading something else.

A couple of examples:

Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs—at first, I was impressed. Wow, I thought, Messud’s hitting uncomfortably close to home, in capturing the situation of a single Boston woman, professional, good at her job, self-sufficient, with friends and interests—who’s very intractably alone. But then the first-person narration starts to get more and more fraught, and bitter, and then, simply, overwrought. Without revealing too much of the plot, our narrator gives too much of herself to people she loves, and who she believes love her, and suffers profoundly when they abandon her—after first betraying her in a very cruel and public way. At the end of the novel, the narrator is still alone, and angry, in a way that the whole plot has made both justifiable, and pitiable. Perhaps we’re meant to find the narrative a gripping and insightful portrayal that elicits profound empathy? Oops, nope, that’s just condescending and voyeuristic schadenfreude.

I finished the book feeling resentful of the author’s manipulation of both character and reader: Messud created a character to whom I had to relate (the trick of the first-person point of view), to whom I could relate, because of the similarities in our lives—single, professional, Boston, not living on the ground floor—and for whom I ended up feeling not just pity (not an ennobling emotion), but impatience. What really irritated me was that the author felt that her protagonist was good material to use in controlling the reader’s interest, to defy our expectations of, or preference for, a character who works her way towards contentment, as though such expectations are naive, or facile (and they may be, but we like them that way).

Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. This novel is a very painstaking, detailed exploration of the mind of a shallow and self-absorbed Brooklyn writer as he moves from one relationship to another. Waldman is very careful and accurate—seemingly—in capturing Nate’s clueless selfishness. Good for her for being able to put herself in the psyche of this particular type of the male writer. She seems to be attempting a bit of literary and social justice, by setting Nate up as a target—women everywhere can feel like they’re getting even somehow by watching this representative man suffer (though really, only a little bit) as his blunders make the women in his life suffer. But then she also allows him to get away with it and—so realistic!—carry on with his extremely privileged life. And as a reader, I have to put up with an insufferable nitwit of a protagonist who learns little about being a better human being. I’ve dated that guy, frequently, and don’t need to spend any more time with him.

My taste in all things is, I maintain, discriminating (what my Nana would call fussy), and I don’t need my readers to think the way I do (who am I to set the public taste? those two authors have far, far more influence than my nascent little blog). And—yes, I did reader response theory in grad school—I’m quite well aware of the varied baggage I bring to my readings. But—if you’re interested—do you know what I find lamentably absent in 21st century fiction, and so likable about their 19th century antecedents?

1) The immersion in a real story. None of this naturalism jazzed up as post-modernism, where we’re trying to capture the essence of a moment, an experience; where the coherence of narrative is a vain illusion because real life is just a series of arbitrary causal reactions, etc etc. Whatever. Because life sometimes seems arbitrary and frustratingly incoherent, I want my literary escapes to be just that—escapes into an alternate reality where things happen for reasons, where actions have consequences and meaning, where justice is done and questions are answered. No apologies for wanting that.

2) At least some of the characters are admirable, good people; or rather, they become admirable and good through the process of the narrative. Characters learn that self-respect is inseparable from respect for one’s community. Consideration matters. Selfishness and heedlessness are, depending on degree, either definitively punished, or, at the very least, not rewarded. Author and readers are united in the belief that there’s nothing wrong with combining entertainment and moral uplift—that it’s all right to use art to inspire and challenge (and not “challenge,” in our cynical, aggressive post-modern way, where authors deliberately frustrate readers’ desire for narrative coherence and meaning as a way of interrogating our attachment to these simple, and arguably conservative constructs, as though taking it for granted that the world is cold and meaningless is a more enlightened position. Ugh). Again, I know the world isn’t like that—you can be sure that Austen and Bronte and Dickens were perfectly well aware that their world wasn’t like that either—but the reason their readers have always been grateful for their work is precisely because in those fictional worlds we get a rest from incoherence and cynicism and whatever-the-hell “edginess” is supposed be.***

The contemporary authors I like best, whose work actually makes me feel content and soothed, are not trite or vapid at all—they’re educated, thoughtful, cultured, technically skilled—and above all, kind in their writing—kind to their characters, to the world they create, and to their readers. I want more of that, not less, in my literature, as in my life. When I read a recent novel with some angst-y, self-absorbed protagonist who neither does, nor learns much in the course of some artistically-fragmentary, non-linear narrative—I might feel some aesthetic or intellectual gratification for having read the thing, but I don’t feel better. And by better I mean it all: diverted, happier, more empathetic and compassionate, more connected to my own values and sense of self, as well as to society. We might have a hard time maintaining these kinds of high standards in ourselves, but all the more reason to ask so much of our literature.

(*why are all first books marketed like this? publicists need to be good writers too…)
(**The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, Leaving the Atocha Station, Alexander McCall Smith’s latest. Why aren’t there any women writers in there?? Recommendations please!)
(***of course, you can charge that these writers also often endorse repressive social structures—the problems that these novels pose are also part of their appeal, because they prompt curiosity about the historical context that made such inequality seem normal.)

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