Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Small "L" Liberalism & The Novel

And I started thinking, What if this guy is right? I mean, if I'm really a liberal, shouldn't I be questioning eeeeeeeeeeverything? Spalding Gray, Swimming To Cambodia.

Gideon Strauss asks me if I think the novel is an inherently liberal medium. Rather than admit I didn't know what he meant, I formed a hazy, media-infused impression of what (picture Jimmy Swaggart in Full-Contempt-Mode) “liiiii-bruuull” embodied. Then I retreated to my bookshelves to see if there weren't novels that epitomized its opposite. Mystery novels, I thought, were probably as conservative in nature as you could hope to find: seeking and singling out the individualist transgressor, and momentarily returning society to its functioning, collective ideal.

Then I considered the novelists who have made headlines in the last five years. Tom Wolfe, Martin Amis – even Michel Houllebeqc, with his pornographic ravings – seem to be begging for some restraining order that might return Western Civilization (or maybe just the poor, tormented author) back to the loving fold of the Great Chain of Being.

Of those three, I have to admit Wolfe is a guilty pleasure. His public posturing irks me to no end, and I love it when James Wood tears a strip off him. But I gobble up his novels – sorry! And even though I long ago wearied of Amis's fiction (sorry, again!), his criticism is among the clearest, most insightful and delightfully written (highly recommended). And I'd rather read about Houllebecq than force myself through another of his novels – tedious adolescent stuff, that.

When I considered how guarded I was in declaring the merits of those fiddlers three, and my impulse toward silence when it comes to hefty discussions surrounding the pleasures of the mystery novel, I thought, “Maybe I'm a liberal?” I recalled the above moment of self-doubt in Spalding Gray's monologue, which occurs after he's endured a conversational barrage from a psychotic coke-head who claims he's in charge of a nuclear silo, then proceeds to outline how a nuclear exchange could be won, and what an improvement that would be on life in general. Everything Gray would like to believe about humanity is turned inside out like a frog in a bio-lab, and he momentarily wonders if this guy's hideous take on things is accurate. Of course, he gives his head a shake and declares, no: this is wrong, wrong, wrong.

And this brought to mind a passage from John Gardner's The Art of Fiction:

No ignoramus – no writer who has kept himself innocent of education – has ever produced great art. One trouble with having read nothing worth reading is that one never fully understands the other side of one's argument, never understands that the argument is an old one (all great arguments are), never understands the dignity and worth of the people one has cast as enemies. Witness John Steinbeck's failure in
The Grapes of Wrath. It should have been one of America's great books. But while Steinbeck knew all there was to know about Okies and the countless sorrows of their move to California to find work, he knew nothing about the California ranchers who employed and exploited them; he had no clue to, or interest in, their reasons for behaving as they did; and the result is that Steinbeck wrote not a great and firm novel but a disappointing melodrama in which complex good is pitted against unmitigated, unbelievable evil.

For the moment, let's just tiptoe around Steinbeck's “failure” and focus on Gardner's creative imperative: walk two moons in your chosen enemy's moccasins before you commit his portrait to paper. Hey, if that's “liberal” I'd like to call myself one! In fact, I hope that's what I am when faced with argument: someone willing to accord worth to my adversary, and weigh the persuasive merits of their perspective.

Alas, it seems I'm somewhat off the mark when it comes to Gideon's question regarding liberalism and the novel. He wonders, “Is the novel in origin and essence liberal – that is, committed to the expression and exploration of freedom above all else?”


Um ... maybe? If you frame it that way, I have to wonder how the novel sets itself apart from narrative, or the printed word in general. The answer would probably be in the scale of its imaginative invitation. If so, the question is one of degree, and not overall effect: Augustine's account of stealing apples is as trenchantly evocative of our humanity as Rose of Sharon's perverse act of self-sacrifice.

But I'm also deeply skeptical when faced with any individualistic claim.

Perhaps the best thing for me to do at this point is concede that this is an Important Question, but one I will leave to the school of philosophy and literary theory. Theirs is a path I eschewed in my late-20s after wearying of the po-mo wonks who crowded the Halls of Academia. Does Reader Response Theory still turn the academic crank? Don't know, don't care – I've consciously chosen not to lose any more sleep over that bleak and charmless take on things, opting instead to exercise caution, ask for wisdom and proceed on intuition.

Hey, whattaya know: I just might be a liberal after all!

Tangential note: it gives me a cussed pleasure to see The Globe & Mail adhering to its short-sighted, skinflint on-line policy. They've removed their review of Noah Richler's This Is My Country, What's Yours?, and it's just as well. I appreciated reviewer Aritha van Herk's enthusiasm for the book, but wished she had run her piece through the word-processor one more time. Here is Brian Bethune's (more adroit) review for Maclean's.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Great head-scratching piece, Darrell -- I'll have to wander away and ponder it. I think of Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" books, which are so humane and compassionate towards characters of every political stripe. It's liberalism at its finest.

On the other hand, isn't the very idea of a novel the writer's take on the world and an attempt to order it, or at least to get the reader onboard with his/her vision? That seems a bit authoritarian.

See? I'm not even sure myself, though your post also made me think of Stephen Colbert's quip, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."

Oh, and your 'po-mo' hit? Gorgeous. Those 90's queer theory types made my teeth itch -- they're as tedious as the people they're fighting!