I have never been here before: my breath comes differently, the sun is outshone by a star beside it.
Kafka, Aphorism 17
Literary fiction these days is crap, isn’t it? It might be better if the problem were just that most books are worthless – they are, but that’s always been the case; you always need a few decades to let the dross sink. There’s still good stuff out there; the blame must be placed squarely with you, the readers. Because somehow, even with your lives constantly probed and perforated, shokushu-like, by digital text, you people have forgotten how to read.
Look at what was probably the most significant literary event of the last few years, the publication of Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”. The story of two people who meet, text each other, have awful unsatisfying sex, and then drift apart, “Cat Person” is written in a brisk, frank, stark, plain, competent, readable style. It includes sentences like ‘Robert sent her back a smiley-face emoji whose eyes were hearts’ and ‘maybe, she thought, her texting “lol r u serious” had hurt him, had intimidated him and made him feel uncomfortable around her.’ It describes a situation that’s fairly familiar – just about everyone I know, both male and female, has been in the position it describes, of having sex with someone out of a sense of resigned duty, going through the motions so as not to upset or disappoint the other person, of resigning yourself to a basically joyless life. It’s very easy to point at one or both of the basically hapless couple and say: it me. It’s all very well-observed, a very plausible dip into the mind of a tedious neurotic. It was received very well.
But something about this reception was strange. Shortly after the story exploded, people were announcing – in breathless, almost angry tones – that the author was actually a writer, that Roupenian actually had an MFA, and a PhD in English from Harvard to boot, that “Cat Person” might actually be a deliberately constructed work of fiction. This feels like a strange thing to be saying about a short story published in the New Yorker, but it was necessary. Broad swathes of the reading public seemed determined to read “Cat Person” as anything other than literature. Something about that brisk, frank, stark, plain style marked it off as something else: a piece of reportage, a personal account, a confession, an accusation. Something about the naïve realism of the literary voice made people assume that the author herself had to be a naïf, unadorned with any kind of creative untruth. Opinion writers – many of whom had their own degrees in English literature – refused to see it as a text to be evaluated; instead, the point was apparently to simply correctly identify the goodie and the baddie in the story, and hate the baddie appropriately. This is how children read. What is going on?
All this is particularly strange when you consider that “Cat Person” was written in a very particular ritual dialect called Mfalé, which emerged out of the temple complexes in Norwich and Iowa City, and is short for MFA Literary English. But the thing about Mfalé is that it tries to make itself invisible: it’s the style of no style; simple, unadorned, correct realist writing. This is how it became a vernacular; this is why Mfalé literature is so easily read as something other than literature. But for all that, it’s still a set of conventions, as basically artificial as any other.
Texts written in Mfalé are brisk, frank, stark, plain, competent, and readable. They concern the daily lives of a few everyday characters, usually young, usually in some kind of bad sexual relationship or complicated breakup, usually mediated by digital technology. There’s a close, but brief, attention to sensory detail, and an even closer attention to minor affective nuances: moments of inattention or miscommunication, people who see each other as more or less than they actually are, small eddies of desperation or loneliness or regret. There’s a lot of banal but realistically rendered dialogue. Stories are generally (but not always) written in the third person, but hew very closely to one particular perspective. If they’re not autobiographical, they read very strongly as if they might be autobiographical. They’re implicitly universal, but shy away from allegory, symbolism, or satire; instead of being general they’re relatable, so that each incident could plausibly echo a situation in your own life in a blossoming of one-to-one correspondences, so that the reader can imagine that the smart but fucked-up girl or the soulful but awkward boy is themselves and nobody else. Unlike some terminally online writers you might want to name, the authors of these works aren’t adverbially preening themselves with strange words or sentences elongated into unreadability – but they’re also not self-consciously flat or affectless or nihilistic. They gesture towards a kind of emotional hyperliteracy. If the author is showing off about something, it’s how much they see, how well they understand the social pitfalls of ordinary life.
I find these texts to be, in general, deeply creepy. If literature is not only a reproduction of social existence, but a site in the production of subjectivity, then this form is a machine for creating paranoiacs. The narrative is odourless and invisible, practically absent altogether, but it sees everything. It watches every minute shift in your emotional state, and jots it down. It’s the literary voice of the creature hiding in the shadows. It predates the technology, but there might be a reason this style is so dominant now: it’s the literature of the social-media panopticon, where everyone is sitting blank-faced behind a screen, watching each other, and waiting for a chance to judge.
This would all be forgivable, if it weren’t for the fact that these texts are also profoundly unrealistic. Take, for instance, Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, which is definitely one of the better instances of the form. The story concerns a couple who get together, then split up again, then get together again, then split up again, then get together again, and in the final pages are implied to be about to split up again. Like “Cat Person”, it’s well observed and very competently written. But this is a story about young Irish people in the present day, and not once in the entire novel does anyone actually crack a joke. Every conversation is deeply earnest and deeply fraught. These people just have feelings, and conceal or talk about them, and are utterly po-faced throughout.
Realist fiction is not realistic. After all, what is a joke? It’s the eruption of a kind of abstract absurdity into the social world, an absurdity that throws everything into sharp relief, that reveals a certain truth that was previously buried, but without simply representing it. Realism is always meticulously anti-absurdist: everything has to be believable, or it’s harder to relate. Which is how you end up with a vision of human existence that rings true in every particular, but fails to add up to anything, that presents people as always diminished, petty, and dull. As Borges notes of Proust, these fictional events are ‘unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each new day.’
As well as instant fame, “Cat Person” gave Kristen Roupenian a $1.2 million advance on her book. But when You Know You Want This was published this year, it was to tepid, cautious reviews. Some of the awkwardness that surrounds an apostate: aside from “Cat Person” itself and one or two others, the texts it contains are not written in Mfalé. Instead, they’re fabular, artifical, constructed; less like a story and more like a tale, something like the Grimm brothers, or the Arabian Nights, or Kafka. They describe situations that it’s harder to relate to, because you’ve never fused all your enemies into a giant flesh-monster, or killed your husband because of a bucket. People are depthless, obscure and obscene. In the LRB, a frustrated reviewer took to parenthetically adding (no reason) every time one of Roupenian’s characters did something that couldn’t be understood. These stories carry a note of the inexplicable, the abstract, and the absurd. A rising strangeness that’s set against the background of mundane thoughts and lives, and seems to emerge out of it, but in a way that can’t be reduced to that setting. This is what reviewers complained about: you have a story about a young couple forced to deal with what’s obviously a metaphor for Our Modern-Day Issues With Self-Esteem, a woman obsessing over every inch of her skin with a magnifying glass – but then the metaphor ‘pierces through her flesh and wriggles free,’ alive, spiked with thousands of tiny legs, and incapable of thinking neurotically about what it might mean.
Tales, in general, are truer than stories. Here’s one, related by Borges in The Dialogues of Ascetic and King: one night, an old man arrives at the court of Olaf Tryggvason, who had been converted to Christianity while in England. The king asks him what he can do, and the old man replies that he knows how to play the harp and tell stories. After a few songs, he relates the story of the birth of Odin. Three Fates arrived at the god’s birth; two prophesied great fortune and happiness, but the third, in a rage, said: you will live no longer than the candle burning by your side, and so Odin’s parents quickly extinguished the candle. Olaf Tryggvason doesn’t believe the story, and the two of them debate the matter into the night, until the lights are dim and the stranger finally announces that it is late, and he must leave. After the lights have exhausted themselves, the king and his men go out to search for him. A few steps from the king’s house, Odin is lying dead.
It’s a melancholy story. The passing of an era, the roar of the old gods fading to a few quiet notes on the harp, the way Odin comes to inhabit the meekness of the Christ that overthrew him. But it’s not just a historical artefact. It feels true, without having any obvious point of identification or clear symbolic meaning. Sad dignity, resignation, and the inexplicable, because life itself is often sad and thankless and strange. The sense, somewhere, of an entirely different way of being, a different way of relating to the snow and the gods and time, a dying world, but one that still echoes, that’s curled up tight inside our potential selves, even today.
All of this, of course, is by way of talking about Game of Thrones.
It’s become a commonplace to point out just how uncreative most fantasy is. I’m sometimes struck by it, reading the blurbs on the fantasy novels at the Tube station mini library. Gogorax is an apprentice Brightcaster – a wielder of powerful magic. When the evil Lord Zugenhelm threatens the realm of Palovar, he must embark on a journey that leads him past the Pillars of Plib and the swamplands of Plonts to collect the five mystical Orbs of Power. This is what’s called worldbuilding, but it’s not world that’s being built. A world is a way of experiencing reality and other people; it’s the unit of social and phenomenological difference. The greatest builder of fantasy worlds in literature was probably Bruno Schulz, who set all his stories in the same quiet Polish town. What these authors build are only geographies.
The innovation of Game of Thrones was supposedly to build a more realistic world. Instead of the hollow creatures of schlock-fantasy – the trueborn heir, the dark lord, the sturdy peasant – you get fleshed-out characters, with the same family squabbles and romantic disappointments you’ve learned to expect from Rooney or Knausgaard. When the war against an undead evil comes, you still need to worry about how you’re going to feed the horses. Even if there’s a bit of magic here and there, it’s all ultimately about politics: it’s realist fiction with dragons in. But then, in the last two seasons, the glamour of realism started to wear off.
An online petition demanding that the final season be scrapped and remade has gathered, at the time of writing, three billion signatures. But beyond the self-evident fact that this show has become extremely bad, the complaint is actually quite incoherent. On the one hand, viewers are upset that ‘character arcs’ aren’t being respected, that the show’s done away with the narrative conventions of high fantasy. The magic zombie army is destroyed in a single battle, almost as a prelude to three more episodes of squabbling and politics! It’s not even the secret trueborn heir who defeats them! In the end, he doesn’t even take the throne! Why isn’t this The Lord of the Rings? But at the same time, the show is no longer realistic. How are these characters zipping instantaneously around the map? Why did they put the catapults in front of their infantry? How come she couldn’t see all those ships? What happened to the Mongols? Why do characters no longer do things that an actual person would do in their situation, but act as if tugged along by invisible lines of plot?
I’m not here to defend one of the biggest and most lucrative culture-commodities of the twenty-first century. A complaint can be both incoherent and also correct (in fact, they usually are). I just want to talk about one particular scene. In the penultimate episode, Dragon Hillary finally gets everything she ever wanted. Her troops breach the walls of the enemy’s capital, the forces opposing them surrender, the crown is practically tossed at her feet. And in this moment, as the bells ring, the liberator goes on a murderous rampage, burning and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people – once she’s already won; for, as the LRB would put it, (no reason).
You could talk about this in terms of cheap and lazy plotting, rushed heel-turns, violence against the character. This is dull. You could talk about representation and the distrust of women in power, or crow that Dragon Hillary turned out to be just like the real Hillary after all. This is also dull. So is Hobbes and realpolitik, the arbitrary violence of sacred kingships, the mass human sacrifices that accompanied royal successions in West Africa and Mesoamerica. What struck me about that scene – and it struck me hard; shortened breath and anxious heartbeats as the city burned – was how true it was to daily life. A child has a favourite toy confiscated; for weeks he begs to get it back, because it’s the thing he wants most in the world – and then when it’s returned, in a fit of sudden sourceless fury, he smashes the thing to bits. A basic psychoanalytic principle: the thing you want is never the thing you really want. The thing you really want, the objet petit a, is the impossible thing, the thing that isn’t, the thing that flies with dragons in the night. So Dragon Hillary, watching her victory from a distance, isn’t satisfied. She thought this would make her happy, but it’s not enough; happiness doesn’t work like that. So she burns it all down – and afterwards it’s too late; you can burn it down, but you can’t fix it once that’s done, and you can’t fix yourself. (In a better show, the next episode would have had her advisors confront her in those terms: so, do you feel better now? Did you get it out of your system?) I’ve felt that urge before, that vertigo. You have too.
You can describe all this with realist narrative and without any dragons. Of course you can; it’s what I’m trying to do right now. But it’s missing something, and it’ll never be as real. It will always lack the impossibility and inexplicability of our lives. It will miss the fact that we all live with our fingertips trailing through other worlds. It will forget that we are lit by other suns.