Inventing in the time of great confusions, trauma, and painful episodes surrounding a writer, is indeed difficult. The reality is too acute to ignore, where fictional world seems so far away from the moment of truth. But in time, as it had been shown in numerous cases in the past, literary fiction did come through these horrific darkness, presenting the world a deeper understanding in the form of literary artistry, that is quite improbable for the voluminous mundane non-fiction to represent.
Don't count me wrong. Non-fiction has its honorable place in confronting the truth and reality in its way of straight-talk and hard-labored research based books, but so does fiction, in its unique way, where the richness of detail of the moment from realistic characters going through any particular traumatic episodes, through its intricately woven plots and underneath inaudible heartbeat, literary fiction can be as satisfying, if not more, than any non-mundane non-fiction.
Sorry, Mr. Naipaul, fiction is loudly alive and incredibly healthy, as it was in the time of "A House for Mr. Biswas".
The uses of invention
The novelist and Nobel laureate VS Naipaul has said that fiction is dead, vanquished by our need for facts. But, argues Jay McInerney, imaginative storytelling has the power to reveal underlying truths in a turbulent world
Saturday September 17, 2005
First, a disclaimer: the following is a work of non-fiction. As such, it is unlikely to be as vivid, or textured, or as faithful to the author's deepest convictions and emotions as his own fiction, as linguistically adventurous or as revealing about the way it feels to live now as the latest novels by Salman Rushdie or Zadie Smith. I write novels. In fact, I just finished one, which is one reason I was alarmed to hear VS Naipaul declaring recently, in an interview with the New York Times, that the novel was dead. Which would make me, I guess, a necrophiliac. Naipaul essentially argues - stop me if you've heard this one before - that non-fiction is better suited than fiction to dealing with the big issues and capturing the way we live now. An accompanying essay, "Truth is Stronger than Fiction", expanded on the theme, and concluded with a lament: "It's safe to say that no novels have yet engaged with the post-September 11 era in any meaningful way." To which we might ask, just for starters, where is the movie, or the big non-fiction tome that has done so.
We've been hearing about the death of the novel ever since the day after Don Quixote was published. Twenty years ago, it was common knowledge in American publishing circles that the novel was over. Even as he complimented me on my first novel, which he had just purchased for publication, Jason Epstein, then vice-president of Random House, told me over a lavish lunch that the novel had probably outlived its audience and that people my own age didn't seem to be interested in literary fiction. He was trying to prepare me for the obscurity that was my probable fate.
When I was in college in the 1970s, it was Tom Wolfe who was banging on about the death of the novel, flogging something called the New Journalism and insisting that fiction couldn't reflect the accelerating grimace of contemporary reality. And in fact, for a while, the televised horrors of Vietnam, coupled with those of the riots in Memphis and Watts, the primal screaming of rock bands and anti-war protesters ... the visceral flux of the late 60s and early 70s made the argument feel almost plausible. Truman Capote abandoned fiction to explore motiveless murder in the heartland, inventing something called the non-fiction novel in the process; and Norman Mailer seemed to throw in the towel fiction-wise during this period. Armies of the Night, his bid for the nonfiction novel title, documented his own march on the Pentagon. New Journalists such as Wolfe and Gay Talese and Hunter S Thompson, by purloining certain novelistic techniques and artiste attitude, seemed for a while to be doing a better job of corralling the zeitgeist than Updike and Bellow. (Although I'd argue that the artistic landmark of that era, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is a novel by any other name.) The British novel was feeling more than a little moribund at the time, as Bill Buford complained in an essay in the first issue of Granta in 1979. Four years later, the "20 Best Young British Novelists Under Forty" issue gathered Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift - Team Lazarus - inside one cover.
The shameless Mr Wolfe belatedly concluded that the novel was a far more capacious and versatile and resilient form than he imagined it to be because long after he declared it dead he trashed his own case by writing Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel that managed to say far more about that era in America than any contemporary slab of non-fiction. Sherman McCoy became a representative figure and phrases like "Masters of the Universe" and "Social X rays" entered the collective vocabulary. Wolfe created a myth for the era - a narrative that shaped the way we viewed the period and seemed far more vivid and sexy than the thousands of essays and articles about "the 80s".
"If you write a novel alone you sit and you weave a little narrative," Naipaul told editor Rachel Donadio in the New York Times Book Review. "And it's okay, but it's of no account. If you're a romantic writer, you write novels about men and women falling in love, etc, give a little narrative here and there. But again, it's of no account." Hereby we dispose of Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations and the majority of novels in the canon. What is of account, he claims, are non-fictional explorations of "the Islamic question", the clash of belief and unbelief, of east and west. Readers of Naipaul's last couple of novels - a fairly exclusive club, I should imagine - probably won't be surprised to learn that he's grown tired of the genre; even Tolstoy came to distrust fiction at the end, but personally I trust Tolstoy the novelist rather than Tolstoy the cranky, sclerotic polemicist. The only reason we listen to Naipaul is because he wrote A House for Mr Biswas and A Bend in the River. If the novel doesn't matter any more then his opinion wouldn't seem to count for more than my doorman's opinion.
In her essay, Donadio cites a recent American interview with McEwan in which he discusses the impact of September 11 as evidence of the waning influence of fiction. "'For a while I did find it wearisome to confront invented characters,' McEwan said. 'I wanted to be told about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn.'" The phrase "for a while" seems crucial here.
Almost everyone I know had the reaction that McEwan describes to the events of 9/11 (and those of July 7, I would imagine, have provoked similar emotions and responses). Most novelists I know went through a period of intense self-examination and self-loathing after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I certainly did. For a while the idea of "invented characters" and alternate realities seemed trivial and frivolous and suddenly, horribly outdated. For a while. I abandoned the novel I was working on and didn't even think about writing fiction for the next six months. In fact, I was so traumatised and my attention span was shot to such an extent that for months I was incapable of reading a novel, or anything much longer than a standard article in the New York Times, even though I was fortunate enough not to have lost any close friends in the attack.
I worked as a volunteer for a couple of months, feeding the national guardsmen and the rescue workers near Ground Zero, listening to the rumours and the strange paranoid lore of the place: tales of Arabs lurking with cameras, of implausible and horrific objects in the rubble. I worked the night shift, darkness seeming more appropriate to the sombre spirit of the enterprise, to the necropolis beyond the police barricades. When I was at home I obsessively watched the news coverage of the fallout of those events. A doctor friend wrote me a prescription for Cipro in case of an anthrax attack. I drank - even more than usual. Lying awake at night with the acrid electric-fire smell from Ground Zero in my nostrils, I contemplated a change in careers. Since I was working in a soup kitchen I thought about going to culinary school - feeding people would always be important. Watching the ironworkers and crane operators working in the rubble, watching my carpenter friend unscrew the base plate from a lamppost and hotwire a coffee maker, I realised that beyond being able to tie a good Windsor knot or fix a Martini I had no practical skills. Almost anything seemed more vital than being a novelist.
The novel I had sold to my publisher, Knopf, on the basis of a first chapter in the spring of 2000, started off with a terrorist bombing at the New York premiere party for a Hollywood movie. As I recall my plan, the bombing was a kind of set-piece which set the plot in motion; I had determined that the culprit would be revealed to be a Muslim fanatic who was deeply offended by western cultural imperialism and the decadence of American capitalism in general and Hollywood entertainment products in particular. The bomber was going to be, at best, a secondary character, an immigrant driven mad in part by the apathy and drossy splendour of a society which occupied the foreground - my usual suspects, as it were. Or something like that. If it all sounds a little creepy now, you will understand why I abandoned that particular novel although it seems to me I might have dropped the idea even before September 11 - like so many things about that time the details are blurry. Weirdly, I'd forgotten about this or suppressed it right up until the moment I embarked on this essay.
For a while, quite a while, fiction did seem inadequate to the moment. McEwan was speaking for all of us. But even in the immediate aftermath, it seems to me, it was novelists like McEwan and Updike and Amis who wrote most memorably about that day. And eventually, of course McEwan returned to fiction, as a writer and presumably as a reader. The New York Times essay cites his Saturday as "a possible exception" to the proposition that novelists have failed to engage the "post 9/11 era". "But, although it demonstrates a fine-tuned awareness of the range of human responses to terrorism and violence, the backdrop of the geopolitical situation remains just that, a backdrop." Or is it? For American readers, in particular, the home invasion at the end of the book might be seen as emblematic of the violation we felt in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Anyone who read the American reviews of Saturday without actually bothering to read the novel might have formed the impression that the book was very much about 9/11, that the flaming airplane illuminating the pre-dawn sky at the beginning of the novel was a major plot element. The reason this aspect was highlighted and even exaggerated seems painfully obvious. The fact is that we are waiting for our major novelists to weigh in and make sense of the world for us after the events of September 11 2001 and July 7 2005. It is to the novel, ultimately, that we turn to confirm our own senses and emotions, to create narratives that reveal to us how we feel now and how we live now, to reveal emotional truths that approach the condition of music. We desperately want to have a novelist such as McEwan or DeLillo or Roth process the experience for us. It's starting to happen. And it will continue to happen, I feel certain, for years to come.
When I told Mailer that my new novel took place in the autumn of 2001 he shook his head sceptically. "Wait 10 years," he said. "It will take that long for you to make sense of it." But I couldn't wait that long. As a novelist who considers New York his proper subject, I didn't see how I could avoid confronting the most important and traumatic event in the history of the city, unless I wanted to write historical novels. I almost abandoned the book several times, and often wondered whether it wasn't foolish to create a fictional universe that encompassed the actual event - whether my invention wouldn't be overwhelmed and overshadowed by the actual catastrophe. At the very least, certain forms of irony and social satire in which I'd trafficked no longer seemed useful. I felt as if I was starting over and I wasn't sure I could. Even though I couldn't imagine how I was going to write about that day, I didn't see how I could possibly write about anything else. It shouldn't be surprising that the novelists are taking their time, and have just begun to weigh in on the events of September 11.
Perhaps the most eagerly awaited American novel of the year was Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, narrated by a precocious nine-year-old whose father was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. Foer's deeply impressive and rapturously received debut, Everything is Illuminated, was that relatively rare phenomenon that pops up just regularly enough to disprove the notion that fiction doesn't matter anymore - a literary novel that sold hundreds of thousands of copies and made the author into a major culture star. The culture still seems to require precocious first novelists - Benjamin Kunkel is this year's version on this side of the ocean. In America we tend to over-celebrate them, and then we tend to kill them, figuratively speaking, in part because we expect so much from them after their brilliant beginnings. (I've been there.) We want them to tell us what we need to know to live.
The critical response to Foer's second novel would almost certainly have been coloured by schadenfreude regardless of its merits; I couldn't help being glad that it was him rather than me getting smacked around by the reviewers even as I scrupulously avoided reading the book until my own was locked up in galleys. I think I can be fairly objective and say that if Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not the novel that will define New York at that moment, it is more memorable and psychologically acute than most of the journalism generated by September 11. The young narrator, Oskar Schell, often sounds more like a mouthpiece than an actual child and inevitably becomes too cute not to hate. Maybe that's going too far, though Foer recently spoke of himself in an interview as "the most hated writer in America" (the rumour of his purchase of a $7 million townhouse in Brooklyn - who even knew you could spend that much in Brooklyn? - didn't win him any new friends among his putative peers) and you can understand his bewilderment: both of his books betray a sensibility that could only be called sweet; he tries so damn hard through the instrument of his young narrator to be adorable and lovable.
As with his previous book there is a parallel old world narrative - Oskar's grandparents are survivors of the firebombing of Dresden. But that tragedy and the attack on the World Trade Center don't really illuminate each other, and young Oskar's quest to discover the meaning of a key he finds concealed among his father's possessions feels random and pointless. But there are moments of linguistic brilliance and of powerful emotion for which we can only be grateful, as when Oskar describes how he printed out the frames of a video of bodies falling from the World Trade Center from a Portuguese website (because those images were pretty thoroughly suppressed and censored in the US) and examines them endlessly, hoping to definitively identify his father, who was on the roof of the building. "There's one body that could be him. It's dressed like he was and when I magnify it until the pixels are so big that it stops looking like a person, sometimes I can see glasses. Or I think I can. But I know I probably can't. It's just me wanting it to be him."
Nick McDonnell is yet another literary wunderkind who has dared to engage the subject of September 11 in his second novel, The Third Brother. McDonnell made his debut in 2002 with Twelve, a terse, minimal coming-of-age novel about privileged and jaded Manhattan youth. The Third Brother is at once more ambitious and less even, but the long middle section in which the protagonist makes his way from the upper reaches of Manhattan down to the tip of the island in search of his brother on September 11 is one of the best and most vivid evocations of that day in Manhattan that I've read. Two early reviews, both in the New York Times, have come close to calling McDonnell's use of 9/11 gratuitous, showing, if nothing else, just how charged this subject will continue to be in the States and especially in New York. Some of Foer's reviewers also raised the issue of exploitation, as if the question were not so much "can novelists do justice to this subject?" as "should they attempt it?". Novelist Frederic Beigbeder heard this when he published Windows on the World in France. "A lot of the French reviewers questioned whether this was appropriate and one said it was obscene," Beigbeder told me recently. The book alternates between a highly detailed and suspenseful minute-by-minute account of a father trapped with his two sons in the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, and discursive autobiographical chapters, in which the author meditates on many subjects, including the meaning of the attacks and his motives for writing about them - as if the author felt the need to justify himself and hedge his bets.
Charges of tastelessness have featured in some of the responses to the American publication of Chris Cleave's thriller Incendiary, which takes the form of an open letter to Osama bin Laden written by an East End London mother who loses her husband and son in a fictional terrorist attack on the Arsenal stadium. I found the book seriously addictive in the manner of a good disaster yarn, although ultimately the descriptions of London becoming a police state seemed kind of ludicrous, entertaining but counter-intuitive, the more so in light of the actual response to the events of 9/11 as well as the bombings of July 7.
Just in case I had any doubts about whether fiction was uniquely suited to conveying certain kinds of emotional truth and metaphoric equivalents for our recent trauma, Patrick McGrath has reassured me with "Ground Zero", a novella in a collection called Ghost Town, which is one of the most compelling and successful fictional treatments of 9/11 I have encountered. McGrath's story is narrated by a New York psychiatrist who was out of town when the planes struck and who is almost ghoulishly eager to stake a claim on the collective trauma of her fellow citizens upon her return. The story centres on her treatment of a patient who falls in love with a prostitute who lost a lover in the towers and is haunted by his ghost. The psychiatrist is gradually and retroactively driven mad by the events she failed to witness as she becomes increasingly obsessed with her patient's relationship to the prostitute. She is, at the beginning of the story, the kind of liberal humanist and moral relativist who believes that bad behaviour is the result of bad upbringing and unresolved childhood traumas but who gradually comes to believe in the existence of evil as a result of the attacks - even as her patient decides to seize life in the form of a troubled prostitute. McGrath told me he's working on another novel that deals with the events of September 11. "What we can do, what the novelist can do, is to talk about how people have internalised trauma."
A concluding anecdote: on Friday, September 15, 2001, I was walking in Central Park with a friend. Having just come from Ground Zero, I was amazed to find a baseball game in progress on the Great Lawn, Frisbees being thrown, and couples cuddling on blankets. Suddenly, I almost literally bumped into the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who was also walking with a friend. We greeted each other and talked briefly, each of us saying where we had been, how we had heard, what we had seen in the early hours of Tuesday. I can't remember whether I congratulated him on the publication of his novel, The Corrections, or whether I decided that it would be more tasteful not to mention it. I'd been invited to the book party, which was to have taken place that week. Later, after we'd said goodbye, I said to my friend: "Poor bastard. No one's going to be reading novels this year."
I'm pleased to be able to eat my words here. In the days and months after 9/11, even as CNN replayed the images of the towers falling and the newer images of bombs falling in Afghanistan, and the New York Times published the obituaries of the dead, Franzen's big serious panoramic novel entry in the great American novel sweepstakes somehow generated tremendous critical interest and found hundreds of thousands of readers. If he hasn't read it yet, I hereby commend it to the attention of Naipaul.
· The Good Life by Jay McInerney will be published by Bloomsbury next year.