The Book Club

Transience and Arbitrariness as a Path to Grace

Dear Sarah,

You’re right. A rule that all literature has to be exterior is too schematic and too inflexible, as all rules are. So let’s call it a goal, and not a rule.

I do want to call it “exterior” literature rather than “emotionless” literature, though, because I’m not saying that we should eliminate emotion (as if we could), so much as the endless dissection of emotion and consciousness. To take only the most obvious examples, the fact that Homer doesn’t spend endless words on how Achilles feels when he hears Patroklos has died doesn’t mean that we should think that Achilles doesn’t love Patroklos, and the same is true is of Penelope and Odysseus. Nor am I calling for affectless prose, though I suppose I am calling for something that feels like disinterested prose.

By “disinterested” I mean something like what Brecht had in mind when he said, in the voice of Me-Ti, “One can live in the third person.” That entails a certain distance from my feelings and my thoughts. It’s not that I don’t feel. It’s that the fact that I feel, that we all feel, isn’t especially interesting. What’s outside is more important, and a better subject for art, than what’s inside.

We often hear that we live in a too-ironic age. But I think the problem is exactly the opposite. We live in an age in which personal emotion is the prism through which all judgments are made. Take this week’s New Yorker, which features an editorial in which Elizabeth Kolbert argues that whatever you think about the Republicans, at least you have to like the fact that their emotions are “genuine ones.” What the hell is that about? In the first place, how can one possibly differentiate “genuine” emotions from false ones? And in the second place, the distinction is an irrelevant one from an ethical and an aesthetic perspective. I don’t care. I don’t respect Hitler because he really hated the Jews, and if Clinton was really attracted to Monica it wouldn’t make me feel better about what he did. As the new Pete Rock album has it, “Fuck keeping it real. I’m keeping it right.”

Look, I would never toss out Austen, Chekhov, James, or Wharton (actually, I think by my criteria I wouldn’t have to, since all of these writers are painfully, keenly aware of the fundamentally social and historical dimensions of identity and emotion). But what’s great about all of them–I’m especially fond of Wharton right now–is their portrayal of the collision of sensibilities, the clash between a burgeoning individualism and still-powerful social codes. There is no such collision anymore, and there’s certainly no debate. We all love the romantic individual, and we all know anyone who would oppose her or him is a cold-hearted Puritan. The heart has its reasons … So let’s watch another Jennifer Jason Leigh movie and read another Alice Munro story, with a Rick Moody novel as dessert to remind us of the damage wreaked by the emotional sterility of suburbia.

Actually, let’s not. You ask for examples other than Ellis of writers working the “exterior” vein. I’d nominate the usual suspects: Homer, Dante, Borges, Kafka, Barthelme, Stein, Gombrowicz, W.G. Sebald, DeLillo, Didion, Gaddis, Haruki Murakami. I think you’re wrong to put David Foster Wallace in this group, though. Far from being “post-emotional,” I think Infinite Jest is all about the desire for but discomfort with emotion, especially with the literary expression of emotion, which I think has something to do with why Wallace can’t write women characters, who embody everything he wants but also dreads. My secret suspicion about Wallace is that he wants to be Fitzgerald or maybe even Salinger, but thinks he should be Gaddis.

But those choices are all obvious, though they are also all great, I think. So let me nominate a less expected author, namely the young writer Sarah Saffian, who recently published a book called Ithaka. (It’s not a novel, but a memoir, but I think that actually strengthens the point.) On the face of it, nothing would seem to be better grist for the “interior” mill than this story of a young adopted woman who is suddenly contacted by her birth parents, and who discovers that they actually stayed together and have a family of their own. But what Saffian offers instead is something quite marvelous.

The book is not, in some sense, about what she felt, it’s about what she did. It’s about how she–and her real parents, and her birth parents, and her boyfriend–dealt with the irruption of something completely unanticipated into their lives. Ithaka is about codes of behavior, family loyalty, the fear/allure of strangers. It’s about, as our mutual friend Lee Smith puts it, coming to terms with your fate. Of course, Saffian writes about her feelings. But she does so sparingly, almost as an observer, and never without an omnipresent sense of the world outside. She understands that it’s the story, and not her feelings about the story, that matters.

I don’t want to make this entry too long, so I’ll try to be brief on the question of how my white maleness accounts for my position. I do think, ironically, that your reduction of my intellectual/emotional position to a sociological one does get at exactly what I’m talking about when I praise Ellis, namely that underneath it all, you do think you can tell what someone is thinking or feeling based on what they look like.

Still, I think you’re misreading me when you confuse me with David Wallace, and with all the white boys who cover their fear/distrust of women by pretending to be distant. Insofar as women authors are those most identified with the “interior” novel, you’re right that my critique probably targets more women writers than men. But I view that as a historical accident, not some universal truth. If anything, I think of women writers as historically more interested in the social. And again, I’m not rejecting emotion, just the idea that dissecting it is a useful aesthetic or ethical project. As for Ellis, I really don’t think he’s any more allergic to women than he is to men, but let’s talk more about this tomorrow.

One last non sequitur. Thinking about this idea about living in the third person, I realize that one of the things I like about Glamorama is the way it enacts on every page the transience, the arbitrariness, of identity and of life. It’s just that I don’t think transience and arbitrariness imply affectlessness or nihilism. In fact, sometimes I think it’s what creates the opening for what I keep thinking of as grace.