Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Something Just Happened

'How nice,' Peter Handke remarks, in an interview with Die Zeit, 'literature would be without all of these journalistic, family and society novels . . . Eruptions are needed, a controlled letting go, not this prescription-like writing.' And in a limpid essay in The New York Times, Haruki Murakami suggests that neorealistic literature - the novelist as chronicler of the age, providing a tidy, humanised view of a big picture his readers can all agree on - has had its day. Things have changed, hinging on two events. One hopeful: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the swift crumbling of the Soviet empire. One dreadful: the fall of the two towers on September 11 2001.
These two acts of destruction, which played out on either side of the millennial turning point with such vastly different momentum in each case, appear to have combined into a single pair that greatly transformed our mentality . . .

Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not “chaos”?

What kind of meaning can fiction have in an age like this? What kind of purpose can it serve? In an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?

Asking how novelists should respond to this - as they must, or else fall silent or become irrelevant - Murakami observes that his kind of fiction, the kind once called (amongst other things) magical realism, the kind which doesn't always faithfully follow the tramlines of known reality, is now no longer an -ism. It isn't off to the side. It's part of the main event.

As a science-fiction writer, I find Murakami's ideas incredibly interesting. And hopeful. Or rather, potentially hopeful. For something similar should have happened to science fiction, shouldn't it? After all, catastrophes and sudden shifts in perception are part of its stock in trade. But instead of confronting Reality A, the genre has, in the first decade of the 21st century, too often turned to its own comforting version of Reality B: retreating into pleasant little pulpish daydreams in which starships still effortlessly span a galaxy where a guy can turn a profit, or where technology is as controllable as clockwork and the actions of individuals can still make a mark on history. Meanwhile, they grumble, 'mainstream' writers are grabbing ideas from the genre and doing terrible things to them without acknowledging the source. As if permission could be somehow given, or withheld.

I prefer the point of view of William Gibson, who has pointed out that the only way to tackle the place we're in now is to use the science-fiction toolkit - the tropes, images and metaphor developed from the crude flint hammers of pulp by decades of cooperative effort and argument. If other writers are using the science-fiction toolkit to evolve new kinds of stories in the present's different air, that's exactly what we should be doing, too. Forget the past. Especially the pasts of all those great glorious science-fiction futures, lost when it all changed. Look again at the future. Embrace change. Let go. If only. If only.


Blogger Ken Houghton said...

I'm more inclined to count 1989 as the middle part of the bookending of 11 Sep 1973 and 11 Sep 2001--sowing the wind, reaping the first fruits--and then reaping the whirlwind. In either event, attention must be paid, though.

But it's difficult not to notice that Handke and (especially) Murikami are, to borrow a phrase from finance, "talking their books."

It's nice to see, but I'm uncertain whether it's anything different than a Vonnegut piece from the 1970s or 1980s or a Lethem piece from the Noughts. (Durrenmatt never became the celebrity of the others.)

December 08, 2010 3:57 pm  
Blogger LarryS said...

Whoosh, way over my head!

December 08, 2010 6:10 pm  
Blogger P.M.Newton said...

In the interests of transparency - and to acknowledge the point Ken Houghton makes about both writers “talking their books” – I must put my hand up and confess to writing crime fiction, set in 1990s Sydney and (hopefully) of the social realist ilk.

I’m also a science fiction reader –and look forward to reading more of it, especially if it follows William Gibson’s advice and rolls up its sleeves to take on the present with the sci-fi writers toolkit.

What I’d like to throw into the discussion is a challenge to Murakami’s “the world changed” thesis, because, frankly, that attitude irritates me beyond belief.

When writers start to embrace the "world changed" thesis and to use it as a reason why certain things can – or should – no longer be written, or to suggest the way things should or shouldn't be written, then I start to vent a bit of steam.

In days following 9/11 “the world has changed” was the most common reaction. It permeated politics and has given us waterboarding and rendition as some of its many consequences.

It also permeated a lot of the literary responses.

High profile critic James Wood used it as a reason to bury the social novel, writing in the Guardian that the "Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan. For who would dare to be knowledgeable about politics and society now?" (1)

Martin Amis took to writing essays about and making up words like horrorism (2) and Ian McEwan reckoned that, “… even the best minds, the best or darkest dreamers of disaster on a gigantic scale, from Tolstoy and Wells to Don DeLillo, could not have delivered us into the nightmare available on television news channels yesterday afternoon.” (3)

OK, so I wouldn’t expect McEwan to be familiar with the oeuvre of Tom Clancy and his 1994 novel Debt of Honour, in which a 747 is flown into the US Capitol during the State of Union address, wiping out the President and a fair chunk of Congress (hell, I only know about it because of a ten month stay in a Buddhist monastery in South India where reading material was …. limited) but in both Woods and McEwan’s reactions I found the retreat from the possibility of creativity and imagination to absorb what had happened on 9/11 to be overly nihilistic.

Writing in The New Statesman at the end of 2001 Jason Cowley described the reaction of the literary world to the terrorist attacks as “catastrophist - eschatological anxiety and an unconvincing sudden seriousness, as if human nature itself changed the day the towers collapsed. Or perhaps it was merely that we in the relatively benign, affluent west had forgotten that the world has always been a spectacular carnival of suffering.” (4)

CONT ......

December 09, 2010 1:47 am  
Blogger P.M.Newton said...

PART 2 ,,,

It was that “spectacular carnival of suffering” that bothered me about the “world has changed” reaction as well. That "world changed" reaction contained in it a denial of other places and peoples whose “worlds had changed” but because they hadn’t changed in the heart of a western power and were not captured on TV, well, somehow they didn’t count.

My inchoate misgivings were captured by the phrase – the “parochialism of the present" - and by a rather unlikely source, the foreign policy analyst and editor of The National Interest, Owen Harries. He defined it as:

“[A] condition resulting from a combination of ignorance of history and an egotistical insistence on exaggerating the importance of events that more or less directly involve oneself. Horrifying and atrocious as the acts of terror were, it should be remembered that they have happened at a time when people who experienced the Somme and Verdun, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, are still alive.” (5)

Well, yes.

Imagine the stories that would never have been written had Erich Maria Remarque decided that the trenches had shattered his Stendhalian mirror, or Primo Levi been silenced by the horror he witnessed, or Bao Ninh or Kurt Vonnegut had allowed their own war experiences to so overwhelm them that they dared not be knowledgeable about politics of society as they experienced them.

Writing about the world we live in can take many forms, magical realism, realism, crime noir, and especially science fiction.

The exciting imaginative leaps and bounds of alternate worlds and realities that end up telling me something about my own reality will always engage me more than FTL battleships blatting aliens – but then, that’s just me.

(1) James Wood “Tell me how does it feel?”).

(2) Martin Amis The Age of Horrorsim

(3) Ian McEwan, 2008 Beyond Belief,

(4) Jason Cowley Published 17 December 2001 The Sense of an Ending The New Statesmen

(5) The day the earth didn't change forever Owen Harries | The Australian | 15 May 2002

December 09, 2010 1:50 am  
Blogger SUMMA POLITICO said...

In 1989, at the fall of the wall, the resolutely
until the early 90s apolitical and autistic
"ivory tower" Handke, who inevitably can and only wants to
find objective correlatives for his innerworld states, was writing I
believe his ESSAY ON TIREDNESS in Spain, name escapes me
momentarily, the ESSAY ON THE JUKEBOX was then written
in Soria.
The markers Murakami cites are part and parcel of the previous
hundred years. Several markers of the past several past 100 years however
are worth mentioning: the French revolution as the marker
for the dissolution of royalty and the inception of nationalism;
WW I as the inception of major conflict between the national behemoths, which has not ceased
to this day. 9/11 is merely a bit of blowback, that every imperium
is bound to experience, it sows confusion only among
the politically unconscious; and serves imperiums for further
expansion, as did/ does 9/11. Handke became politically active with
the disintegration of the 2nd Federation, onto which he had foisted
his idea of a peaceful landscape, a dissolution that he felt
coming, and that is chiefly due to destabilizing economic
warfare under the Reagan
administration against Eastern Euroe, with the tribes then
reverting to ethnic identities
and finding the proper demagogues to bring ghosts back to life.
Being uppity, Handke a few years back said that although he had
never voted in his life if he were a citizen of Serbia he would would
for Nicolai, the nationalist candidate, who lost, there's a photo of
Handke shaking his hand at a Handke photo album
that can be reached via:

December 09, 2010 2:24 am  
Blogger SUMMA POLITICO said...

Lineares is where Handke wrote THE ESSAY ON TIREDNESS... which list all the matters that used to tire him as an adolescent, which, coincidentally, were all the things that made the melancholy player angry! Nothing like a good rainy nite's sleep in Seattle to jog the memor. On the Ebro I believe, Lineares that is. x michael r.

December 09, 2010 3:37 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Ken - You're always right to take whatever authors say with a pinch of salt. Murakami is indeed talking up his book, as am I. But authors are always interrogating themselves and their writing choices, too (if they have any sense); advertisment for self or not, I think his article makes some interesting points. And yes, there is something of the 1960s and 1970s in the air, at the moment, isn't there?

P.M.: As far as the West (USA, Europe (and maybe Australia?))is concerned, things did change, and are continuing to change. And not only because of the War on Terror, or the end of the Cold War. But yes, things may be different in the rest of the world, and for the authors there. I'm guilty, I guess, of making the assumption that the Western canon is the main event, although in my defence Murakami was addressing his American and European readers in his article. On the other hand, I find Owen Harries' moral relativism, with its implication of league tables of suffering, repugnant. As for the rest, I'm not calling for an end to writing any kind or form of literature. I'm just excited that there's a small chance that the kind of literature I write might be taken a bit more seriously. And I agree with you that it can tell us something about this world (whatever we mean by that).

Summa Politica: It's not my policy to get involved with family arguments, and I won't do so here.

December 09, 2010 5:19 pm  
Blogger D. Ghirlandaio said...

"the novelist as chronicler of the age" is all you'll ever have. No art has ever predicted the future as much as described the present. Jules Verne was a novelist of the late 19th Century.

Futurist politics is is always reactionary. The greatest tragedies of the 20th century begin with fantasy.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


December 10, 2010 1:50 am  
Blogger P.M.Newton said...

Interesting, Paul. I didn't read what Harries (or Crowley) were saying as moral relativism but more as a slap across the face - kind of a "snap out of it let's not all go completely mad here" - a call to acknowledge the vastness of that "carnival of human suffering" rather than any kind of league table.

The whole realist v non-realist debate can risk becoming a bit internecine, when basically everyone is just trying to tell a story the best way they know how.

All I would add is that the world you built in The Quiet War is for me a superb example of the power of great leaps of imagination to create something that felt, as I read it, absolutely real.


December 10, 2010 5:34 am  

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