By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
So the novel’s dead, right? Yeah, I’ve heard that, too, over lunches with writer friends and associates who were likely relating something their agents had told them about the bleak market for fiction, the advances so small they’re hardly worth anyone’s time (especially the agent’s), the near-contempt most publishing houses have for the form — if offering no money for marketing and promotion can be called contempt, and many who say it can. It’s a common saw and it’s how we writers prepare for our inevitable disappointments and elevate our improbable successes.
But the novel was dead before it was dead in the minds of my friends’ book agents. V.S. Naipaul, the eminent British novelist and Nobel laureate, has been saying for years that the world is too complex for novels. Only nonfiction can tackle the Byzantine entanglements of modern life, which now seems to date back to September 11, 2001, but which in fact precedes that day by decades (there’s considerable overlap between the petering out of the now-quaint Cold War and the heating up of this nefarious new conflict). Incidentally, or not, Naipaul won his Nobel Prize for literature in October 2001.
A couple of years ago, New York Times Book Review editor Rachel Donadio wrote an essay called “Truth Is Stronger Than Fiction.” In her epitaph, she cites everything from Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch’s mandate for more nonfiction to The Atlantic Monthly’s abandonment of fiction altogether (ditto GQ and, for the most part, Esquire) to Ian McEwan’s proclamation that history books, especially the ones on Islam and imperialism, are what really matter.
I disagree. If the novel were really dead, I would be, too. And I’m not. So it can’t be.
I’m sort of joking, but at the same time it’s hard for me to imagine Ron Paul’s The Revolution: A Manifesto or Kevin Phillips’ Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, as huge-selling and relevant as they are, being much help when I found myself bereft, sans home, wife and one of my dogs (at my new landlady’s insistence), and scheduled to have the Hubble telescope shoot pictures of my ass from the inside due to a prostate-cancer scare.
Suddenly, I started seeing a barking octopus when I looked in the mirror. I felt alien and afraid. Salter may have helped me to recognize the changes that were starting to happen to me, but now they were no longer starting. They were in full bloom. And I needed help.
One dread night, rattling around this strange, new place in which I now live, my tentacles knocking things over left and right, one of them by chance grabbed Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer off the bookshelf. The book had been traveling with me, relatively unconsidered, for years.
But, wow. I know I sound like the last boho on Earth to discover Tropic of Cancer, but it was a revelation to me. My preconceived notion of Miller as a trickster, or as an all-too-obvious chapter in the hipster handbook, went out the window as I turned page after page, fascinated more by his defiance, commitment, fortitude and courage as an artist than by his quaint transgressions as a sexual adventurer. Miller’s willingness to be smashed on the rocks of his convictions about who he is (an artist) and what he does (write) and how he does it (differently than anyone before) moved me.
When I needed a pep talk, a coach, a lieutenant, someone braver than I, who would guide me through my personal battlefield, Henry Miller was there for me. Tropic of Cancer spilled off its pages with blood and dirt, it soiled and sullied me with passages like the one in which Miller describes the freedom he felt after realizing he’d been stripped to the bone: “Now suddenly, inspired by the absolute hopelessness of everything, I felt relieved, felt as though a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders. ... The dawn is breaking on a new world, a jungle world in which the lean spirits roam with sharp claws. If I am a hyena, I am a lean and hungry one: I go forth and fatten myself.” This follows fast upon a rant about how he wished all of mankind’s hoped-for miracles would turn out to be two enormous piles of shit served on a silver platter that even the blind could see — yes, please!
It would be an exaggeration to say Miller saved my life, but he did help fortify me as I faced the dawn breaking on my own new jungle world, which I was stepping into with all the assurance of a kitten.
What kind of case am I makingfor the novel when my examples of its relevance are decades old? Well, that’s part of the argument in itself — great novels are timeless. Novelists are the outriders of society and, as George Orwell did with Animal Farm and 1984, they can map the future. We follow them over the horizon as they show us a world that isn’t flat, long before such a thing has been charted. The best novels are three-dimensional panoramas. They take where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going, then they turn that big picture into allegory — and allegory is much harder to ignore than history.