Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Kids Are Alright, Alright

In today's NY Times Book Review, Katie Roiphe puts forward an essay more interesting for its omissions than for its content. This is nothing new for the Times, notorious for baiting their book and art reviews in an attempt to lure some mild controversy.

To recap the core of "The Naked and the Conflicted", Roiphe essentially asks, "Whatup newbies-- where's the lavish carnality of our old literary heroes." Roiphe's piece, a brief comparison on the then and now of sex in literature, chooses to counterpose Roth, Bellow, Mailer, and Updike against Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, and Benjamin Kunkel of all people. Whether or not she simply looked down the list of NY Times best sellers for the last ten years is hard to say, but for some reason the Times likes to harp on these people being the new literary generation, almost as much as they like to rend their shirts about the approaching death of literature.

It's not so much that this comparison isn't apt, it's that it is too convenient. The conflict overlooks the extraordinarily different conditions these writers all grew up in. The mere fact of a Roth in the world makes his reappearance less interesting. Whatever strategies the writers Roiphe picks employ, theirs is the job of dealing with sex post-Roth (Roth included), let alone the fact that each of the younger writers grew up in a world where sex is simply more evident in the mainstream. If the job of the contemporary writer is to re-envision the sexual revolution of the 1960's, then we might start to understand the cultural exhaustion present in so many of the "ambivalent" writer Roiphe picks and by extension implicates in the death of literature (which isn't happening).

Where does Don DeLillo sit in Roiphe's matrix? He seems to be the important missing step between those horny old gents and the newbies, precisely because he injects his fiction with self-conscious characters, while still maintaing tight engaging sentences. In part DeLillo's fiction works, antiseptic as it may be, because he pushes his work past that parochial breaking point where concept is continually introduced but never challenged-- i.e. the bubble never breaks, the world is always safe-- a criticism I found at least in Eggers' and Kunkel's works.

Here Roiphe and I agree to a point. But among the new male parochial writers she mentions sex is more than just out of fashion, it is anathema. Franzen typing for five years with a blindfold and ear plugs-- as he did when he wrote The Corrections-- is not searching for other people-- he is searching inside himself into a virtual world that can be destroyed by an encounter as true as sex. Likewise Infinite Jest for all its brilliance could not adequately synthesize sex. Sex is the opposite of its obsessive cleanliness. But who would look to Chabon for sex? His project is to revive real, engaging adventures with the loving detail of a twelve-year old enthusiast, a boy's world made mature, but not by sex-- by experience. Again, it is not mere ambivalence that keeps these writers from engaging with the Roth sex type-- these writers have read and know the work of the previous generation, they are trying to find something new in different places, a generation raised in the living room around TV, wounded by divorce and the tide of those sexual politics. The wish is in part to elide the extraordinary sex scene and suggest the simple safety of being together.

The problem more in Roiphe's essay is the desire to declare a new generation: a torch passed, a torch accepted. Writing is simply not what it once was-- nothing is. How can anyone expect the novel to reach back into that point before high and low were mixed and mass communication became paramount? Which is not to say it is dead. Far from it. As the publishing industry implodes, people are still writing and reading. More and more personal writing is taking place. The desire for those broad novels still exist, but the true zeitgeist rests in the personal, in those small human projects. Ultimately-- a good written account of sex may just be what America needs to touch base, to feel the separation from the endless titillation and recall something with power and depth. Nothing about the younger writers Roiphe picks would elect them to the position of writing that passage. If she wants to anecdotally ascribe their inability to a self-consciousness bred by first-wave feminism, that's fine-- why not take up the critical mantle and point us to a few authors-- male or female-- who might lead the way?

George Saunders, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ben Marcus and William T Vollman all take sex head on in their work. Here you actually have some authors who have taken the gauntlet from the previous generation and moved it forward in some cases to strange places and other ribald expressions of that same exhaustion with the perennial question of sex. Saunders' Sea Oak is very much aware of the fact that whenever a writer writes about sex today there is a large impersonal industry to deal with. That the language of sex has been broken to a certain extent. Brett Easton Ellis as well adapts his prose to pure Penthouse Forum (with fewer adjectives) whenever he writes about sex. Vollman had sex with a post-op transexual in order to write a convincing passage about it. That same power that Roiphe ascribes to Mailer's sexual writing is taken to its parodic extreme in Marcus' Notable American Women, where the narrator's passivity is taken advantage of by first the family dog, then each of the disciples within the Cult of the Female American Jesus.

I'm guessing the reason why the comparison was made in the first place was because of the perceived literary celebrity of those authors on Roiphe's chart-- this is more of an essay about what we find acceptable in popular entertainment and a misapprehension about the roles of writers in their times.

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