Not Dead Yet: The Novel as Lifeline
I read and I read and I read. I read like Forrest Gump ran, because I didn’t know what else to do or where else to go. He went running. I went reading. Novels mostly. The supposedly dead form. The only thing deader than poetry, or so the joke goes. A friend started me on my reading binge with James Salter’s Solo Faces. This friend and I share a taste for the late, hard-bitten Southern novelist and short-story writer Larry Brown, and he thought I might like Salter, even though there’s little in style or content connecting the two writers.
The protagonist in Solo Faces is Vern Rand, a taciturn, detached, world-class mountain climber. Unhappy and unmoored, he heads off to the French Alps to test himself against nature and better-known climbers. I related immediately. More so to the character’s remoteness than to his mountain-climbing prowess — though some people still talk about the drunken one-day roundtrip I once made to the top of Colorado’s 14,007-foot Mount Holy Cross. See, my wife and I were starting to break up when I began Solo Faces and what Rand and I had in common as I followed him up the cold and desolate peaks around Chamonix, France, was the even-mightier struggle to master the language of human relations. I suppose I also related to the way Rand fled when that language was beyond his grasp. He went to the Alps to climb dangerous mountains by himself. Less heroically, I went to the ocean to surf, the gym to box, the diamond to play baseball. In these elements, at last, we were free from trying to do more than we were capable of.
But for how long, right? Just as I couldn’t stay in the water, Rand couldn’t stay alone up on those mountains forever. Or could he? It’s hard for me to overstate how much of my world turned on this seemingly trite question. But by posing it, or by making me ask it, Salter fastened me in for the whole metaphysical roller-coaster ride that great novels can take you on. He took life and death out of my trembling hands and put them in the hands of Vern Rand. Rand became my surrogate, breaking trail on the edge of oblivion with one foot barely on the ground and the other driving him toward clouds. Through him, all my existential muddling was projected in startling focus onto a canvas more epic and gorgeous than I could ever reach except in my (and Salter’s) imagination. For me, the nail-biting drama wasn’t so much about whether Rand could scale those snowy peaks, but where his feet would finally come together. Would he find the language to talk himself back down to the ground, or would he give up and seek eternity instead? In my own way, I found myself fighting a similar battle, and, as I’ve found can happen with great novels, Salter transported me out of myself while taking me deeper inside as well.
As I read on, I began to see not just me but some of my now ex-wife in Rand. Few of us are driven by the belief that we might be world-class in anything — and fewer still have the guts to test that assumption. But Rand and my ex-wife, a professional dancer, are among those few. Reading Solo Faces, I realized that while she and I had crossed paths on a certain mountain, we were heading in different directions. I was returning to Earth, she was still going for the clouds. Somehow, this understanding helped.
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That same friend next lent me Salter’s Light Years. Either he didn’t know my situation, or he had a mild sadistic streak. The story, which isn’t so much a story as a portrait, is of the disintegration of the marriage and home of Viri and Nedra Berland. Their home in the Hudson River Valley outside New York was a reflection of their marriage; it was once happily noisy with dogs, children, laughter, smart friends, celebration. In some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read, Salter slowly and lovingly unravels the whole thing. Light Years is not a morality play, it’s just life captured and reflected in all its fleeting grace, humbling pain and tenuous temporality. While I was reading this, my own home, which had once been alive like theirs, was being hollowed out. Furniture was taken away, pictures were put in boxes, dishes vanished from cabinets, paintings came off the walls, and when my wife finally left for good, as when Nedra left Viri, much of the light that brightened my dark corners went with her.
So, it was almost surreal to lie there at night in bed in my own carapace and fall deeper into the vertiginous collapse of Nedra and Viri — their home, their friendships, their entire construct — while the same thing was playing out for me just beyond the borders of the small, private space that book reserved for me. At times, I would just have to put it down and howl from inside with the power of recognition. It’s a testament to the beauty of Salter’s prose that I could keep going. In fact, I couldn’t stop, no matter how much I sometimes wanted to. And in the end, there was no happy ending; none especially for poor Viri, who never could find a way to self-generate the light that Nedra shined for him. Nor for Nedra, who blossomed brightly and briefly in her freedom, but was like a comet shooting across the sky, brilliant and terminal.
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 making for 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.
Besides, it’s not as if I was just reading classics.
I also read Larry Brown’s Dirty Work, a novel that takes place over two days in a VA hospital and transpires almost entirely through dialogue between a just-admitted white Vietnam vet and his black roommate, who has been there for 22 years and who longs for an end to his suffering. I read The Rhythm of the Road, by an L.A. expat living in London named Albyn Leah Hall, which was published last year. Hall is a practicing psychotherapist, and the novel is a nuanced and textured psychological study of how loneliness can turn infatuation into obsession and a needy person into a pariah, or even a sociopath.
I chewed through Will Beall’s fun debut from 2006, L.A. Rex, a page-turner whose references will not be lost on any of our mildly alert citizens. Beall is an officer in the city’s 77th Division, one of the most dangerous, and it was a kinky kick to see so much familiar terrain play out in a narrative that reveals at least as much about cops and corruption as anything in the newspapers from the past 10 years. I suspect the underrated recent film Street Kings owes a beat or two to Beall’s book.
None of these selections was planned. I wasn’t following anybody’s syllabus. I just picked stuff off my shelves and read. I didn’t care what it was, but it all seems to make some kind of sense now. Hall’s and Beall’s books came at a time when I was ready to move out of my internal universe and back into the world around me. They made for a nice, easy transition.
Then came Denis Johnson’s sprawling 2007 National Book Award winner, Tree of Smoke, followed right away by Cormac McCarthy’s terse-by-comparison 2007 Pulitzer Prize–winning The Road. And here’s where anyone arguing that fiction is insufficient to master the complexities of contemporary life should really check back in, or just check out.
Tree of Smoke is, perhaps, the best novel I’ve read since Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Martin Amis’ The Information or Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. JFK’s assassination and the first dark stirrings of containment policy in Indochina set the stage, and the narrative flows like a river with many tributaries all the way through the Vietnam War and its aftermath. It’s a big story, told almost like an old folktale, Beowulf for modern times, with characters as brave, flawed, earnest and corrupt as your friends and family.
In the end, though, Tree of Smoke is an epic confrontation with the ambitions and disasters of America’s imperial idealism. I don’t think I’ve read anything that so well crystallizes where we are now, how we got here, and what’s likely to come of it. I defy you to stop reading once you begin, so cinematic and rich is its prose and so involving are its players, from the charismatic Colonel and the heartbreaking NGO worker Kathy to Skip, the Quiet American who embodies all the best intentions and disastrous naiveté of this country.
As for McCarthy’s The Road,I’m not sure if it’s a cautionary tale, a parable, zombie thriller or all of the above, but try finding a more compassionately and brutally rendered vision of the apocalypse. It doesn’t seem to offer much hope for those who may feel the weight of collapse in the air, but now that I think about it, his novel is really a love story. And where there’s love, there’s hope. Right? Yes, right, that’s what he’s saying: Where there’s love, there’s hope. No matter how bleak things look, there is still love.
And still, thankfully, the novel.
L.A. Weekly’s former deputy editor Joe Donnelly is a writer living in Los Angeles.
More from Weekly Literary Supplement 2008:
The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon By John Banville
Salman Rushdie: An excerpt from The Enchantress of Florence By SALMAN RUSHDIE
Renewing the Faith: McSweeney's Goes Back to Basics, Makes Publishing Fun By MARC WEINGARTEN
The Brief, Wondrous Tournament of Books By NATHAN IHARA
In a Jam: How Suspense Keeps the Novel on Edge By THOMAS PERRY
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