Innovation’s uses and uselessness

First off, I'd like to apologize to any readers living outside New Orleans. I am so very sorry, because it sucks to be you. My breakfast this morning was hashed duck and yam, garnished with hot pepper jelly, atop a cornbread waffle. A brass band just marched down my street. In two days we have the biggest party of the year, and you have a late-winter Tuesday. I'm sorry you aren't here; you should probably examine your life choices.

Is that a terrible thing to say? I can be terrible sometimes. Even in the midst of joy, I'm full of negativity. I hate almost all post-modern literature: how negative is THAT? Hate is such a strong word, in this case so richly merited.

I hate the post-modern novel

I hate the sterile, self-aggrandizing and joyless games of the post-modern novel. I regard them as deriving from the saddest qualities of late-industrial mainstream male acculturation. The post-modern novel is a "literature" of empty one-upsmanship that speaks only to its own narrow milieu, the printed equivalent of the television show Jackass or the relentless, market-driven innovations of hardcore pornography. Like these, it is aberrant without being interesting, spectacular but uninstructive. Ought I name names? John Barth, Mark Leyner. Fatuously proud to be alienated and alienator, writers unworthy of a reader's time.

But thank heavens for the passage of time! Fads and fashions fade, taking with them their proponents and devotees. Wherever we may be at present, I believe we can draw a line, or better yet a stone-laden burlap sack, around "post-modern literature." Now, I don't think awesome writers like Burroughs and Acker belong in the same category as the tedious mid-american masturbators named in the paragraph above. I don't think exciting novelists like Houellebecq belong in the sack either... but I also don't want to spend this time arguing what constitutes post-modernism.

Let's just say that to a hidebound formal traditionalist such as myself, books like DeLillo's White Noise and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest are rare, extreme-case positive examples of successful works emerging from or associated with a post-modern literary culture that lost its way.

What I like

At best, experimentation for its own sake, breaking convention merely for the accomplishment, is only as interesting to me as the performance of a circus acrobat. When successfully executed, the high-wire stunt evokes professional admiration, empathic nervousness, exhilaration as the stunt is carried out, and speculation about what the performer might be like to sleep with.

All these are commendable effects to have on an audience, in no wise incompatible with art, but they aren't in themselves what I seek from art. I'm looking for love, not just cheap thrills. There are reasons Wallace's Infinite Jest is hailed as a great book, and those reasons aren't its copious footnotes or Wallace's play with linear time.

I hold Wallace was taken from us before he could produce the novel that would have been the full flower of his authentic genius as a writer and moral philosopher, the book that would join Moby Dick in the uppermost echelons of American literature-- but Jest is a great book. It is a book rooted in human life, conveying brute anguish, millenial anxiety, and the recognizably authentic dynamics of addiction in a manner befitting those subjects. This entails extraordinary stylistic feats, e.g. a literary technique mirroring the dysphoric blurring of personal experience with mediated entertainment, cogent writing about the loss of cogence, all rendered readable and even fun. Of course I have my quibbles, but Jest more than deserved every success and accolade attending it, and I hope will enjoy longevity within canon.

What I don't

Broom of the System.

Wallace's Broom, one reads in secondary sources, has a lot to do with the arguments of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. I haven't read Wittgenstein. It was clear while reading Broom that big ideas shaped the book, but as someone unfamiliar with those ideas, I did not find them emergent. They shaped the book only obliquely, & thus I experienced Broom as the canvas of a competent novel stretched and deformed across the framework of an indiscernible philosophical experiment.

I could tell there were very particular reasons things were happening within the narrative, but since the specific engine driving the events was unfamiliar to me, I was left to take the work on its own merits, leaving its presumably commendable integrations of Wittgenstein to congeal unappreciated back in the serving dish. As far as my experience of the novel, all I had to go on were the book's characters, developed (or undeveloped) by their reactions to occurrences within their lives. While Wallace even at 24 years old was a more-than-serviceable storyteller, I found the story as told to be rather thin broth.

That broth I so earnestly sipped, naively seeking sustenance, is Where The Rubber Meets the Road. It's the reader's experience of the book as written, as distinguished from a great number of other considerations-- an author's intentions, a novel's autobiographical context, a book's presumed situation within genre or trend, the other works in reaction to which the book was written.

The reader's experience of a book is something I revere, something I hold in almost fetishistically high regard. It is to me the measure of a book, the most important place in which a novel succeeds or fails.

Now pardon me; it's time for lunch, and then a parade.

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