Friday, August 31, 2007

Wood & Wood & Mortar & Wood... — by Daniel Pritchard

I've recently been indulging myself in high-end theory: Marxist criticism by way of Jameson's Late Capitalism. Reading Marxist criticism is something akin to hearing a person speak English with a thick accent, when you have just taken a percocet — "can you say that again? I'm sorry I don't understand the words you are speaking; can you repeat yourself more slowly? no, that didn't help..." It goes on like this, until you become accustomed to the patterns and the context, sort of like getting used to dissidence in orchestral music.

Late Capitalism is a book I've been meaning to re-read for a while, although I could not have told you why. Something in the brief section I'd read while at University struck a chord. Even in rereading the book I wondered whether I was really getting anything out of it. And then I came across a gem, a shockingly true paragraph-length labyrinth sentence. Jameson is analyzing the Marxist thinker Adorno's critical writing on aesthetics, and writes that late capitalist economics is obliterating "possibility and creative novelty by intensified repetition and sameness."

Commercials. Branding. Starbucks. Sitcoms. Chick-lit. Ironic-hipster authors. Harry Potter. Barnes & Nobles. Conglomerate news.

And then a question occurred to me: is this being dealt with in any meaningful way in modern literature? There are poets whose work is specifically Marxist coming out of the small presses, such as Mark Levine, but not very many. Novelists? Not to my knowledge. It made me think of James Wood, and how much he hates "hysterical realism." It has been claimed (in a recent Boston Globe article) that Wood doesn't "get" America because "a messy, sprawling country demands comparable novels." Hysterical realists and other author / novels Wood has lambasted would apparently provide that mimetic literary content.

But that is only relevant if you really believe that America is all those things. If you agree with Jameson / Adorno (or really, just open your eyes to any strip mall) then "hysterical realism" is no longer mimetic, no longer the voice and image of the country, and the novels are, in many ways, plasticized versions of those mid-century sprawling "great American" novels such as The Adventures of Augie March & On the Road. I love these novels, but also recognize that they have as much in common with my daily existence as Jules Verne.

Wood argues against the mimicry of America's "weirdness." But maybe that isn't what misses the mark with him. What he calls for is that authors deal with the universal-social / biological of being human, to step away from trying to mimic weirdness. Wood isn't a Marxist in any way shape or form, but that doesn't mean that Jameson's criticism is not on the mark and the situation isn't affecting the current literary output.

Is it possible that what Wood really finds appalling in the novels he derides is the sense that the authors are writing about an America that only exists in marketing campaign slogans? Is that why the best new novels seem to mostly be set in alternate, fantasy & futuristic worlds — because there is no model for how to write about the repetitive sameness that obliterates possibility?

Discuss amongst yourselves. Comment as necessary.

Liked this post? Read more from Dan Pritchard at The Wooden Spoon.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Seriously guys, no comments? C'mon.