James Wood's Case against "Hysterical Realism" and Thomas Pynchon
Staiger, Jeffrey, The Antioch Review
The undeniable force and sometimes contrarian originality of his judgments, together with a punchy, aphoristic prose that never settles into predictability, have in little over a decade made the Englishman James Wood one of our leading critics, a status ratified by his recent appointments to the staff of The New Yorker and the English Department at Harvard. This combination suggests the dual appeal of his writings, which achieve an elusive blending of commanding insight and lively readability, laying claim to the attention of the academic scholar and the common reader alike. Starting out as the literary editor at The Guardian in England, Wood came to the United States in 1995 to become the book editor at The New Republic, where his challenges to the approbation enjoyed by some of our most prominent novelists soon earned him a reputation for fierceness and independence. Although a flexible surveyor of the literary field, one attached to no one brand of fiction, in his essays and reviews he has been unfolding an ongoing argument for the primacy of realism in fiction, and the authors he has chided either fail to achieve a convincing realism or, what in his eyes is more damning, deliberately depart from it.
It might seem that realism needs no such advocacy, but since the sixties at least, particularly in America, the most advanced fiction has shown an impatience with realism and the subtle psychological exploration of character that goes with it, as if the seriousness required for a deep interest in human motive were incompatible with the promptings of the zeitgeist. It is this strain that has received Wood's most serious scorn. In 2001 he caused a stir in literary circles when he coined the pejorative genre term "hysterical realism" to describe the sort of wacky, antic, profuse mode of narrative that had come to seem the cutting edge of the novel. While his critique of this fiction is powerful, biting, and, in many respects, persuasive, it is also possible to feel that Wood is so out of sympathy with its spirit that his criticism, so illuminating when it comes to works he likes, fails to do justice to the originality of some of our greatest novelists, including Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and, above all, Wood's prime exhibit of the meretriciousness of postmodern fiction, Thomas Pynchon.
The novelty of Wood's critical enterprise does not lie in its approach, which might be described as aesthetico-humanist; the novelty rather consists in his ongoing demonstration of the viability of such an approach in a time when most academic criticism has turned away from aesthetics. By treating literature as art, concentrating on how authors move readers, Wood has shown that literary criticism can be central without being abstruse and self-important. In the extended reviews and appreciations (and sometimes deprecations) collected in his first two books of criticism, Wood provides some intellectual background, some relevant biography, but this is always subordinate to capturing what is distinctive about the author in question. In practice, this means getting down to showing how an author's vision is manifest in the fine points of technique, how a word or turn of phrase can disclose a whole sensibility, a whole complex of authorial empathy and judgment. Although Wood offers astute close readings when warranted, he does not engage in outright interpretation of the works he examines. Rather, he describes what they do, how they achieve their effects, how they move or fail to move the reader. In something of an apology for his approach in the journal N+1, which had attacked him in its inaugural issue for being "wholly negative," Wood gives the name "persuasive redescription" to this procedure, and he sees it as one of the critic's main tasks. "Persuasive redescription" is the kind of summary infused with commentary that we engage in whenever we recount the events of a story in order to highlight the creator's salient effects. It might sound like a modest goal for criticism, but in our day modesty can be subversive.
The strength of Wood's criticism derives in part from his strong convictions about what fiction should do. He has been a vigorous champion of realism, though his understanding of the term is duly nuanced and exploratory. This predilection is palpable throughout his reviews, but it comes to the fore in the pithy introduction to The Broken Estate, his first collection of critical essays, published in 1997. While in recent decades it has become a badge of sophistication in the academy to controvert the question of what is real, Wood finesses the whole issue pragmatically. A work's realism, he explains, depends not only on our sense of what is lifelike, but also on our sense of what is consistent with the stylization of the world the author sustains in the rest of the work. In this account, realism becomes as much a matter of persuasion as verisimilitude. Wood mentions Schopenhauer's observation that "Dante got his fantasy of hell from the world," and glosses: "He means that Dante's hell is real, feels real, not that it is realistic or lifelike.... Dante's reality is a maddened version, a dark hypostasis, of life." A work is realistic, then, if it is intense or vivid or ample enough to get us to believe in it. According to this same introduction, the ascendancy of fiction in the nineteenth century is not incidentally coupled with the general waning of religious belief during the same period. This helps explain the gravity that fiction holds for Wood in his investigations. There is an Arnoldian component to his argument, the sense that literature has succeeded religion as the prime locus of truth about ourselves. It is a not incidental effect of Wood's passion for fiction that he never needs to make an ado about the importance of criticism because it can be assumed to borrow the importance of its subject. Criticism matters because literature matters.
In Wood's second book of essays, The Irresponsible Self: Laughter and the Novel, his interest in realism largely revolves around the portrayal of character. The irresponsibility invoked in the title is that of the character who seems to exist for his own sake, not as a vehicle for whatever ideas about the world the author wants to register. Bearing no responsibility toward his creator to further his creator's meanings, he gives the impression of being free and alive and real. Wood's supreme examples of this effect are to be found in Shakespeare, whose characters "feel real to us in part because they feel real to themselves, take their own private universes for granted, and in particular their memories and pasts." It might seem to be biasing the question of the dramatic portrayal of character to take one's prime example from drama, where the whole question of the seeming realism of the characters is complicated by the fact that the characters we see on stage are, beneath their personae, actually real people. But the point is that in the rambling flow of their minds, such characters appear inadvertently to reveal themselves, and thus the reader can have the impression that he is directly experiencing them rather than being abstractly told what to think about them.
In fiction, the writer can create this dramatic intimacy by limiting his exposition to the character's point of view, to what the character thinks and sees. The name for this procedure is "free indirect style," and Wood's latest book, How Fiction Works, is something of a primer devoted to showing how it is the organizing principle of modern fiction since Flaubert, who first perfected it. Detail, language, metaphor--Wood explores how the author's basic choices are governed by the constraints of this technique, one of whose benefits is the fertile tension that results between the character's perceptions and the author's. In other words, "free indirect style" is inherently ironic, and how an author balances this necessary irony with sympathy is the chief occasion for the exercise of his artistry in realistic fiction. Indeed, the exercise of this artistry is what makes fiction work. For Wood, "free indirect style" functions for narrative art in much the same way that the conquest of perspective operated for painting several centuries earlier: as the optimal solution to the technical challenges of the medium and hence as the preferred technique, universally available, for dramatically rendering the world.
Now it would not be fair to accuse Wood, as some commentators have done, of a retrograde taste, just because the writers that serve as his cardinal points of reference--Flaubert, James, Tolstoy, Chekov, Joyce, Lawrence, Woolf, Joseph Roth, Hamsun, Svevo, Bellow--all flourished, with the exception of the last, during the roughly hundred-year period extending from 1850 to 1950, the heyday of the psychological novel. His ongoing engagement with these writers, his attempt to frame their achievements for a present audience, has reinvigorated current discussions about the capacities of fiction. In any case, Wood has championed and, now in the pages of the New Yorker, continues to champion, a heterogeneous range of contemporary novelists. In the N+1 piece, he goes so far as to offer a refutation of the charge that he is sour on the present by adducing the names of twenty-nine current writers (as of 2005) whose works he has reviewed favorably. In his latest book, moreover, he makes a distinction between some postmodern devices for characterization that are useful and others that are merely frivolous. Nevertheless, it is fair to question whether the standards derived from past masters, great as they undeniably are, are adequate for judging postmodern American fiction, most of whose signal achievements have come out of a tradition of resistance to the very emphasis on character that for Wood is indispensable to successful fiction. Compared to the major works by the figures in the canon above, the novels of Pynchon, DeLillo, and Wallace, for whom portraying character is indeed secondary to capturing the big picture, can seem like misbegotten deviations from realism--brash, forced, and spurious. Yet for aficionados of postmodern fiction who have relished their works and felt their pertinence, their extravagant burstings of realism are meaningful and necessary ways of giving us new access to ourselves.
To be sure, there is a good deal of truth in Wood's broad attack on "hysterical realism," which appeared in his review of Zadie Smith's White Teeth. In a self-appraisal remarkable for its honesty, Smith herself admitted that "hysterical realism" was "a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth and a few others." Indeed, if there were not a good deal of truth in this description, and the critique it already implies, it would probably not have caused a stir in literary circles. His description is as fair, in a general way, as it is witty: "the big contemporary novel is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence. Stories and substories sprout on every page, and these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion.... Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on." The key point of this critique Wood goes on to express as follows:
What are these busy stories and substories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character in fiction, since human beings generate stories. It might be said that these recent novels are full of inhuman stories, whereby that phrase is precisely an oxymoron, an impossibility, a wanting-it-both-ways.
"Awkwardness about character" aptly suggests that the failure of these works is not just the technical mistake of allowing characters to be steamrolled by headlong narrative; it is a failure of seriousness, and not just on the part of this or that author but, since a whole school of fiction is being accused, on the part of the culture itself: the postmodern irony these works revel in stems from a fear of the sincerity and empathy required for getting close to the ultimate reality of people, and a corresponding delight in surface effects, technical sophistication, and profuseness as substitutes for depth. The result is a kind of fiction in flight from itself, hastening from one extravagant incident to the next without taking time to flesh out the human beings to whom and in whom the events could have meaning. Because the reader has no basis for forming expectations about them, when the characters in such fiction act, they come across as quirky and arbitrary. They exhibit behavior, not agency.
There is an almost unbeatable Jamesian logic to this position: if events have meaning only insofar as they are experienced by somebody, then the more developed the character the more meaningful the novel. Or, to put it another, more Jamesian, way, our awareness of what happens to us is what happens to us. Naming names, Wood offers the following list of premises and motifs: "Recent novels by Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace, and others have featured a rock musician who, when born, began immediately to play air guitar in his crib (Rushdie); a talking dog, a mechanical duck, a giant octagonal cheese, and two clocks having a conversation (Pynchon); a nun called sister Edgar who is obsessed with germs and who may be a reincarnation of J. Edgar Hoover, and a conceptual artist who is painting retired B-52 bombers in the New Mexican Desert (DeLillo); a terrorist group devoted to the liberation of Quebec called the Wheelchair Assassins, and a film so compelling that anyone who sees it dies (Wallace)." Wood leaves the preposterousness of this list to speak for itself. Apart from illustrating the prevalence of the phenomenon in question, the obvious implication is that such fantasticalities are not likely to coexist with richly rendered characters. A talking dog or a mechanical duck in a novel sets a loose tone, one that effectively rules out the seriousness that would go with a profound interest in motivation.
Just reading over Wood's list of nutty elements one catches some of the brash spirit of abandon that propels the novels in which they appear. They alone are enough to give an impression of the novelist's cutting loose and making free with his task of recording the world. Their obviousness of meaning, their deliberate lack of subtlety, signals that the expressive dimension of the act of writing has taken precedence over the patient limning of settings and characters. By now the exercise of this sort of freedom, this gambit of meeting exhaustion with exuberance, is an all but instinctive response to what Harold Bloom has called our belatedness. These works exhibit an accelerated metabolism, an exhilarating, plastic rage that reflects the world by distorting it. Yet it is precisely this exhilaration that Wood would have us question, poking fun at reviewers who cite various marvels in these works as if they were "evidence of great imaginative power" in themselves: "again and again, books like these are praised for being brilliant cabinets of wonders. Such diversity! So many stories! So many weird and funky characters!" The enthusiast of these works will be brought up short by Wood's sarcasm and begin to suspect that the antics and eccentricities of the works he enjoys represent a facile sort of invention, an instance, in Coleridge's terms, of fancy as opposed to imagination. The obvious objection to Wood's critique of postmodern novelists, that he disparages them for not doing what they don't try to do, then, is not enough; for he goes so far as to make the case that they should want to do it, since what they actually do is in his view inferior and not quite legitimate.
On the other hand, the works Wood yokes together are too disparate not to need to be appraised on their own terms. His distaste for postmodern fiction leads him to too sweeping an indictment. For starters, an entire genre can't be impugned on the basis of the flaws in the work of an epigone. Despite the prizes and acclaim it garnered, White Teeth, in the opinion of this reader, was a cloying first novel with all the sentimental moralism of a sitcom thinly disguised by a knowing, street-wise tone. Wood takes pains to point out some of the novel's virtues to compensate for his making a glaring example of its vices, but what he effectively shows is that White Teeth is not under its young author's control, not that hysterical realism is a necessarily deficient mode when practiced by a more skillful writer. The other novels by the more assured writers on his list fit under the general category "contemporary, big ambitious novel," and they may all include wacky elements (though this is debatable in the case of DeLillo's Underworld), but, as even a brief consideration shows, they have quite different tempers and aesthetic designs, ignoring which the critic deprives himself of the chance of encountering something new and strange and possibly great.
Mason and Dixon is sui generis. Narrated by the digressive Reverend Cherrycoke to relatives gathered around a fireplace, the story proceeds in such lackadaisical fashion that, rather than being whipped up and manic, it runs the danger of stasis. It has zany elements aplenty--the conversing clocks, the mechanical duck, the giant octagonal cheese, a were-beaver, and whatnot--but they are refracted through the prism of the novel's antique prose, which creates the topsy-turvy effect of a reverse historicism: we get to see our present through the eyes of the past for which it is but the inchoate future. Pynchon's offbeat novel evokes a precarious turning point in an ideal history of consciousness, when rationalism, yet to colonize the whole of the mind, coexisted side by side with superstition, without anybody's taking stock of the contradiction. In a world in which the marvelous is taken for granted, the marvels that populate the text are not marvelous enough. Paradoxically, the marvelousness of the marvels the characters encounter throughout the novel is blunted by their credulity. What gives Mason and Dixon its quixotic feel is that its author sides with the marvelous without endorsing its existence outside of the novel's realm. In late Pynchon, fiction is just about our only salvation, and an ambiguous one at that. His "country of the subjunctive," the alternative space of imaginative and ultimately political possibility, an America without inequality and injustice that hovered like a ghost of an ideal over the birth of the nation, exists only as a conjecture in the novel Mason and Dixon; or on the balloon driven by the "Chums of Chance" in Against the Day, which, like Huck and Jim's raft, constitutes a pre-adult society apart from the fallen, "indicative," world.
Mason and Dixon does not have the burlesque flavor of its obvious forerunner in the genre of postmodern historiography, Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor. It is not imitative, either for the purpose of historical accuracy or parody, but rather initiates a form that could have existed, in the sense that it distills the worldview, with all of its inconsistencies, of an entire epoch. It has the superior truth of poetry in the way Aristotle contended that poetry deals with essential and history with contingent truth. This is to say that it passes Wood's pragmatic test of realism: Pynchon's novel wins us over to the validity of his fanciful phenomenology. Like the jar Wallace Stevens places on a hill in Tennessee, which "made the slovenly wilderness / surround that hill," the line Mason and Dixon carve through the pristine wilderness symbolizes the human imposition of order on the natural world. The novel's strange amalgam of eighteenth- and twentieth-century prose is like the patchy Allegheny forest in which we glimpse Mason and Dixon at halting intervals as they move forward and backward on their crooked path. The novel shows them as products of history, and yet through the screen of the narrative voice, with its silences, abstractions, and sententiae, one catches hints of a fuller humanity half accommodated to the civilizing norms of their time. Reading the novel, we have moments of recognition akin to when we remind ourselves that the subjects of black and white photographs moved in a world as polychromatic as our own. At the same time, the novel's implicit acknowledgment of its own roots in the late twentieth century raises the tricky question of just how time-bound we ourselves are. Of course, because an artist has good reasons for his art does not mean it succeeds; but if Mason and Dixon fails it is not because of the flashes of zaniness, which are integral to the novel's overall design. The zany elements don't detract from a verisimilitude that was never intended in the first place. Rather, if the novel fails, it is because its pleasures are too rarefied, and because its levity does not save it from ponderousness.
Still less does Underworld fit the bill of the "hysterical realist" novel. In his earlier review of the novel, Wood had made the valid point that the connections among the characters were forced, more thematic than dramatic, although, on the other hand, in a novel that aims to measure the dire effects of technology's ascendancy in the postwar period, the portrayal of its characters as carrying on forlorn, atomized existences would seem to be fitting. But the painting of the planes in the desert is a plausible example of a piece of environmental-political art from the seventies. J. Edgar Hoover's sharing his name with a mean-spirited, paranoid nun, itself no far-fetched characterization as far as I know, is certainly mockery, but it cannot be deemed a flagrant distortion of reality: DeLillo's renderings of both characters are credible in themselves.
Moreover, the metabolism of the novel is somber, not frenzied. Delving into the here and now of his characters' experience as Pynchon does not, DeLillo is master at reproducing the indolent, molecular creep of consciousness, the slow melange of memory, thought, and perception as it coalesces in time. The action of Underworld mostly consists in following the ruminative drift of the characters' minds during assorted hours of their lives. After White Noise, an overtly satiric work, the characters in his fiction tend toward the same even stolidity, as though all emanating from the same depressive male psyche. Rather than fiat, though they exhibit a flatness of spirit, they are opaque, no more comprehending themselves than their author, who gives us about as much view of them as we have of most of the people who populate our lives. Reversing Wood, then, one could say that they feel unreal to themselves, but this psychological state of feeling unreal is realistically portrayed. In very different ways, Underworld and Mason and Dixon (and Pynchon's latest novel, Against the Day, as we shall see) gesture toward the depth of their main characters obliquely, without entering into it, but this is not the same as giving us caricatures in the place of people.
The one novel Wood has expressed some misgivings about including on his list, Infinite Jest, is the one that best fits his description of "hysterical realism." Surely, if any recent work exhibits "a zany overexcitement, a fear of silence and of stillness, a tendency toward self-conscious riffs, easy ironies, puerility ..." as Wood recapitulates the features of the mode in his N+1 essay, it is Wallace's burgeoning, febrile novel, with its red herring premise, multiple plots, corny action, allegorical names, parodies galore, and cast of dozens if not hundreds. In addition to the fatal entertainment cartridge and the wheelchair assassins, Wood might have mentioned a building elaborately constructed in the shape of a human brain, a contaminated zone between Boston and Canada in which a gigantic wailing infant crashes about like Godzilla, those Quebecois terrorists who place giant mirrors across highways to make motorists veer off the road to avoid apparent head-on collisions, a boy who extorts victories on the tennis court by playing with a gun to his head, a mysterious cellar-dwelling guru who licks sweat off students' bodies in exchange for advice, an entire family snuffed out by cyanide when each attempts mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the previous victim, a deformed girl born without a spine whose father hides her face under masks of various starlets while "diddling" her nightly (the hysterical readily grades into the grotesque). All these stories and the rest of the action are told in an unquenchable, jam-packed prose that delivers a new order of descriptive closeness, an ostentatious precision that raises solidity of specification to a new order of magnitude.
Yet in an interview with The Kenyon Review, Wood has expressed some reservations about having "bundled [Wallace] into the hysterical realism package," and grants "a sort of historical inevitability to [Wallace's] experiment." What Wood most likely means when he invokes the "historical inevitability" of Wallace's project is that it combines the satiric brio of antic fiction with characters that are compelling in their own right. The attempt at such a mix was indeed inevitable: if a novelist wants to show how the modern world dehumanizes us, then it would seem to be at least as rhetorically effective to depict human beings who are reduced by it as to start with reductions. In the novel the two main characters, Hal, the authorial stand-in, and Gately, the amiable galoot and ex-addict sincerely trying to reform, are developed enough to be more than mere accessories to a zany romp. At the same time, all the situations in the novel are taken to lurid and parodic extremes. So we respond as to a cartoon, something not really real, but a cartoon so hugely fleshed out that it nevertheless satisfies our need for realism. Infinite Jest belongs in the "hysterical realism" camp, yet like the other novels on the list, it achieves its own singular effects precisely by inventing ways of characterization that elude clear-cut categories.
The underlying problem with Wood's critique of "hysterical realism" is that he does not attempt to explain why writers might aspire to write serious fiction that avoids plumbing the depths of character, leaving it to the reader to suppose that they just want to entertain, or attract notice, which is, after all, the goal of the hysteric, from a culture that has taught them to aim low. Like bower birds building ever more elaborate and glittering structures to woo mates, these novelists would be in competition for an ever-dwindling supply of public attention. Some such argument is the only one Wood could make, as long as he hasn't credited the hysterical realists with any motive deeper than mere showmanship or the belaboring of inauthenticity. The critics and readers who enjoy these works would then simply be bamboozled by their ostentatious display. The review of White Teeth begins dynamically with a rapid sequence of assertions: "A genre is hardening. It is becoming possible to describe the contemporary 'big, ambitious novel.' Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: Dickens." But, as with his recent ascription of Pynchon to the lineage of Fielding in his review of Against the Day, Wood's derivation of "hysterical realism" from Dickens is true only in a general way. An even more immediate ancestry is to be found in the absurdist fiction of the early sixties, when writers like Heller, Vonnegut, and Pynchon himself sheered away from the concern with personal fate and redemption, central in the work of the high modernists of the previous generation, to fashion skewed pictures of a world askew.
Of course, it is possible to address our collective fate while remaining true to realism, which is what Saul Bellow did so brilliantly in a run of novels that pitted the lone intelligence of their protagonists against the ravages of modernity. But for other authors the grimness and absurdity of the civilization that had suffered the carnage of world war and the holocaust, and that now lay under the steady menace of nuclear annihilation, required a more radical squashing of form. The vision of a dehumanizing world found a symbolic outlet in reductive means of characterization, in semi-allegorical types, grotesques, cartoons. Hence Vonnegut's flimsy, throwaway characters, Heller's compulsive monomaniacs, or Pynchon's passive drifter of a hero, Benny Profane, "a schlemihl and human yo-yo" who at the end of his peregrinations in V admits he hasn't learned "a goddamn thing." Ali these variously stunted characters are playthings of large impersonal forces shoving the world haphazardly toward doom. At the time these authors and others were understood to loosely constitute a movement of satirists or black humorists. A contemporary observer, the critic Robert Scholes, called them "fabulators," contending that with their emphasis on plot they had gone back beyond the modern preoccupation with character and motivation to revive a presumably more primordial dimension of literature: story itself. Writing in 1967, Scholes describes "fabulation" as "a return to a more verbal kind of fiction ... a more fictional kind ... a less realistic and more artistic kind of narrative" and conjectures that it "provides one answer to the great question of where fiction could go after the realistic novel."
As the sixties progressed and the pace of experimentation accelerated across the arts, advanced writers engaged in increasingly self-conscious experimentation with the very concept of fiction. The era grew rife with various forms of illusion-destroying metafiction, fiction about its own genesis, in which the author's writing of the story inevitably becomes the story. But, more bent on art, Pynchon went in the opposite direction: not toward demolition but toward embodiment. Every bit as self-conscious about writing as the purveyors of the overt, cheekier metafiction of the era that now seems dated, Pynchon fashioned a style in which the authorial self-consciousness is internalized, a kind of fiction that is implicitly metafictional. The deep ambiguity of the resultant manner, in which the author conveys an acute awareness of the artificiality of his fiction, not overtly but through the way be stylizes his world, lent his works a tension that continues to fascinate to this day. So he stays within the third-person expository approach, but distorts the whole into a souped-up expression of an accelerated, unruly world, a synthesis of absurd vision with absurd manner.
The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon's second novel, exemplifies this
mode beautifully from the first line:
One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.
There is something facetious about this beginning, not just in the mild comedy of a housewife with a highly resonant name getting tipsy at a tupperware party; at bottom the facetiousness is one with the represented world, it is the act of representing that is facetious. It is not that these events could not happen, but rather that this opening not only describes a scene but also dramatizes a sensibility, an attitude toward the events in the story and the world that conveys an exasperated historical awareness about the act of describing them itself. This is not just an opening of a novel, but a quickening of the idea of an opening, just as the action will be a quickening of novelistic, that is, realistic, action. Everything that belongs in a realist novel is here, a situation, a character, her perspective, but they are sped up, snappy with the exaggerated specificity of the exotic words "kirsch, fondue, executrix, mogul...." A writer would not think of starting a novel with such a sentence until thousands of novels had been written, just as one would not exhibit soup cans and comic book panels until a long tradition of serious painting had come to seem exhausted.
The Crying of Lot 49 is an early and influential avatar of the extroverted, larky style that would become general in the ensuing decade, and that Wood still later would dub "hysterical realism." By the standards of realism, a hitch-hiker with a phallic thumb (Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), a society of women who cut off their tongues to show solidarity with a rape victim (John Irving, The World According to Garp), a capricious misfit who sells bat-towers that are supposed to rid communities of mosquitoes (Tom McGuane, The Bushwhacked Piano), or an orphan with a big bankroll who collects franchises (Stanley Elkin, The Franchiser), are all unsubtle premises, to be sure, but the genius of this sort of fiction is to use overt contrivance and lack of subtlety to give expression to a collective sense of heightened self-consciousness, of surfeit and saturation. Such works wear their meanings on the surface. They have an embodied obviousness of meaning that melds the telling distortions of art with the bluff directness of popular culture. They are satirical, but unlike satire they don't have fixed targets--the mores of a class, the hypocrisies of an institution; they rather give vent to something less definite, the zeitgeist, that particularly modern deity, and give the reader the pleasure of riding a current of irreverent caprice that takes in the novelistic tradition itself. Of course, by the time of Wood's piece on "hysterical realism," the "anything goes" spirit of the sixties and seventies had hardened, in many cases, into a rather tired manner. But whether the extroverted mode is an apt way of expressing our current plight is a question that can be answered only by the particular persuasiveness of this or that work. Few literary works stand out in any case, and there is no a priori way to rule out what province they may come from.
Late in 2006 the appearance of Pynchon's whopping new novel, the 1085-page Against the Day, provided Wood with an occasion to refine his case against postmodern fiction in general and his bete noire in particular. Calling the novel "a kind of zany Baedeker" of hysterical realism, Wood offers what amounts to a compendium of his various earlier objections to the mode. He contends that the characters lack the psychological presence to be carriers of meaning, so that nothing that happens in the novel has any real meaning for the reader. "As in farce," Wood writes, "the cost to final seriousness is considerable: everyone is ultimately protected from real menace because no one really exists." Pynchon's lavish display of incident and language would then be, in the tried and true hysterical realist manner, an attempt to compensate for this underlying emptiness. As for the novel's language, Wood even casts doubt as to whether the language is all that interesting, noting that Pynchon makes rather perfunctory use of all the various subliterary styles he packs in the novel. Elsewhere he concedes that some passages of the novel are beautifully written, but questions whether this beauty is anything other than a facade: "like Don DeLillo, Pynchon has a tendency to use rhapsodic 'fine writing' to smudge the coherence of his meaning." So the novel is hollow, a vain display of technical prowess: "the descriptive keyboard is manically swiped, up and down, up and down, from top to bottom, as if some genius child were proving to us that yes, he can play the piano."
Wood had made the same point a decade earlier, referring to Underworld's "flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page," and calling Pynchon's prose in Mason and Dixon "a beautiful flexible alloy." There is not just consistency but an unusual critical rectitude behind these judgments: language can be beautiful or flawless and yet it is still meaningless if there are no solid characters for it to gain a hold on. In effect, Wood is putting into question a pair of postmodernism's guiding doctrines, namely that language creates reality and that the richer the language the richer the creation. In the case of Against the Day, the virtuosic prose and mighty commotion may be diverting, but they cannot ultimately hide the emptiness beneath the surface. Echoing the terms of his "hysterical realism" essay, Wood sums up, "the [novel's] high spirits are lively rather than life-giving." Worse still, in his view, it "does everything but move us."
This characterization of the novel as so much vain trumpery is reinforced by the assumption, plausible enough, that Pynchon's overarching purpose in the novel is to reveal the artificiality of the novelist's art, to keep his reader's mind aware that his fiction is fiction. Such a construction of Pynchon's motives is the obvious way to make sense of his use of a panoply of popular styles--the boys' adventure tale, the Western, science and detective fiction--from the period the novel spans: if not outright parody, the novel's leapfrogging genres show character to be a pure function of style, the outcome of a code that can be switched on and off at any time at the whim of the author. The novel would seem to be written to confirm another postmodern doctrine related to those specified above: that there is no truth, no origin, just copies of copies, and so on. As Wood remarks, the novel "delights in the copied, the secondhand, the centerless imitation, the flawless fraudulent surface." But while this is true as far as it goes, surely Pynchon is up to more than that; the delight does not stop with the imitation. If conveying a sense of the artificiality of his own enterprise and the impossibility of getting at reality or truth were all that Pynchon were trying to do, Wood would be entirely right when he remarks that "1100 pages of antic surface is an awfully expensive price to pay for these pretty obvious splashings in skepticism."
The problem is that Wood, like even some reviewers and readers who relish Pynchon, gets stuck on the inauthenticity, when the inauthenticity is such an inveterate assumption of his work that it should be thought of as a premise rather than a demonstrandum. If Against the Day conveys a sense of its own artifice, like much modern art that does the same it conveys many other things besides. The novel's many styles may be patently "artificial," but their point is not artificiality, but ambiguity. Pynchon elevates the various popular genres he uses in his novel into a highly evocative literary medium, marbled with metaphysical connotations, figural wizardry, and a sometimes harsh vernacular frankness. The book's different narrative patches contain disturbing tonal mixtures, often starting squarely in a certain key but then wandering, like the music of the era the stories are set in, into odd and original dissonances. Like Mason and Dixon, which presents an offbeat amalgam of eighteenth- and twentieth-century styles in order to explore the imaginative limits of historicism and hence of fiction itself, Against the Day is a time machine that takes us back to an epoch when the pursuit of transcendence was not yet divorced from the advance of science, attaining in fiction what it knows to be impossible in fact, and thereby insinuating a quixotic protest against the fundamental rationalism of our day.
Framing his critique as a resume of the faults of "hysterical realism" keeps Wood from honoring the genuine artistic strangeness of Pynchon's new novel. In the opening paragraphs of his review, he makes an admittedly broad distinction between the internal, psychological novel initiated by Richardson, and the external, heavily narrated, told style wielded by Fielding, assigning Pynchon to the latter lineage and noting that the main difference is that Pynchon, in modernist fashion, "flexes his stylistic muscle." While this is true in the general way Wood intends it, in Against the Day Pynchon takes the picaresque, expository approach of Fielding and transmutes it into something as different from the eighteenth century as a beagle is from a wolf. Starting from the outside, Pynchon works inward, and his overviews of spiritual quests and divagations often home in on some unsettling mood or dramatic moment of recognition. Only at rare moments does he in modernist fashion inhabit a character's immediate thought-processes raveling out in the here and now. But while we are thus not sufficiently involved in the workings of the characters' minds to enjoy the drama of their consciousness, he fashions an essential, poetic psychology in which they are defined by their prime hankerings and obsessions, some comic, some zany, but most just strange with the existential strangeness that accompanies our awareness of the mysterious forces that impel us. The narrative approach is external, but not superficial. As in Mason and Dixon, the imperfect fit between narrative style and the characters reveals an underlying conflict between the anarchy of human desire and the languages available for naming it.
The sort of manner one usually associates with Pynchon is zany farce, of which there is no dearth of instances in this huge novel, yet no less typical, though seldom noticed by critics, are passages that catch glints and nuances of memory-haunted nostalgia, obscure longing, premonitions, doubt, rue. After a long odyssey in Mexico in which among other things he falls in with some revolutionaries, spends time in jail, and travels with a shaman out of Castaneda, the character Frank Traverse makes it back to the States and takes up residence in the frontier town of Nochecita, where he hopes to find his brother's wife:
He kept thinking he saw her, Stray with her hair down and her baby in her arms, out in town running chores or riding away, always away from him, toward the hills. Yet later, say three or four in the afternoon, when everybody but Stray and the little one, or their shadows would have cleared out--when, alone, he could return to the empty rooms, he knew that before too long, from the other side of whatever it was separating them, he would begin to hear her "getting ready for supper." Frank stood at the flimsy kitchen door, with the papered-over glass when the light came through, and listened, breathed, waited. He wondered if Stray, over on "her side," alone during the deepening sadness of these daytime hours, might've begun to hear in other parts of the house routine sounds of his own presence--footsteps, water running or draining--as if from some phantom rooms amputated from the rest of the building and occupied, like it or not, by the dead?
Here the Fieldingesque manner of "telling" has graded into the more modern technique of third-person limited omniscience, as the pursuit of the beyond takes the humble form of an intense longing for somebody absent, a sense that the one he seeks could as easily be there as the thin walls of the rooming house could be breached. Frank's yearning for the small reassuring signs of daily life (ironically associated with the shiftless "Stray") betrays a kind of existential dislocation, a particularly modern form of alienation. One could argue that even such a moment of poignant yearning is inauthentic: the whole sequence echoes a work from the period, James's psychological ghost story "The Jolly Corner," in which the protagonist, exiled from America for over thirty years as James had been, returns to his family house in New York and begins stalking the ghost of the man he might have become had he stayed. The clues are not only in the use of specific words like "phantom" and "amputated" (James's ghost holds up a hand missing two fingers); when Frank wonders whether it is not Stray who is really present and he the ghost, the passage plays upon the central dramatic reversal of James's story that occurs when the ghost turns tables on its pursuer and stalks him. In a sense, then, the passage is "copied," but again the point is not to flaunt artificiality; for the reader who is conscious of it, the allusion to James (whose last unfinished novel actually dealt with time-travel) confirms the deep-seatedness of the era's obsessions with the beyond.
Even though the episodes featuring the Chums of Chance, a band of boy adventurers who star in one of the novel's main narrative lines, sport a more conventional style that makes them more liable to burlesque, they repeatedly glide into plain weirdness. At one point the Chums, their organization infiltrated by insidious time-travelers, disguise themselves as students at the Marching Academy Harmonica Band and after an indeterminate time, possibly years, come to doubt whether they ever really were the well-known band of juvenile adventurers:
Were they now but torn and trailing after-images of clandestine identities needed on some mission long ended, forgotten, but unwilling or unable to be released from it? Perhaps even surrogates recruited to stay behind on the ground, allowing the "real" Chums to take to the Sky and so escape some unbearable situation? None of them may really ever have been up in a skyship, ever walked the exotic streets or been charmed by the natives of any far-off duty station. They may only have once been readers of the Chums of Chance Series of boys' books, authorized somehow to serve as volunteer decoys. Once, long ago, from soft hills, creekside towns, from libraries that let kids lie on the floor where it's cool and read the summer afternoons away, the Chums had needed them ... they came.
Again we encounter characters beset with the odd idea of being their own ghosts, a supposition made more unsettling by the hint that some compulsion they do not understand, perhaps even rising from within themselves, has made them undergo this transformation. As the passage progressively strips away the Chums' disguises, it undoes the very premise of the fiction that contains them, demoting them all the way from heroes to surrogates to mere dreamers of the heroes they now have only a vague recollection of having been. The existential doubt as to whether they were only surrogates all along gives rise to the possibility that they were just boys whiling away indolent afternoons with the fantastic adventures of the Chums in their eponymous series of books. Like an airplane or hot-air balloon sinking through the layers of clouds on its way back down to earth, the passage returns us through a series of hypotheses to a scene of original inspiration, possibly ultimately that of the novel itself: the dreams of boys, the vicarious identification with characters who live only in the sort of fiction the novel celebrates, the imaginative transposition into the world of written fantasy that is the only kind of time-travel that we're ever really going to get.
As just the above few passages show, Pynchon, while staying within the framework of an external view of his characters, often modulates toward a more modern intimacy. The kind of psychic drift traced in the above passage is one of several techniques he uses to suggest the feel of subjectivity (in the Chums' case it is a group subjectivity). The novel's characters are defined on the summary level of their quests, yearnings, obsessions, but when they succumb to reflection their purposes turn out to be uncertain; and this aura of obscurity around final motives creates a constant state of expectancy for the reader, as if something were about to be arrived at and revealed around every next comer, when the only sure thing, as ever in life, is that the story goes on.
But it is often just at this point, when a character begins to recede into himself, and the mind turns inward into its own memory-saturated interior spaces, that Pynchon breaks off, signaling the indefinite continuation of consciousness with a question mark or ellipsis. In his review, Wood makes much of one of Pynchon's uses of an ellipsis, contending that it indicates "the empty terminus of broken meaning." But these humble marks serve as orthographic freeze-frames, capturing a character on the brink of some deeper comprehension the author chooses, out of a kind of respect that creates the effect of interiority by deferring to it, not to pursue. This unwillingness to delve further into the minds of his characters stems from an understanding, widespread in the sixties when Pynchon was starting out, of psychology as an intrusive form of control, as if the author's saying what was in his fictional characters' souls made him an ally of the oppressive system out to regularize and control human existence. Yet through his own signature techniques developed to skirt such putative presumption, Pynchon colors the external presentation of character with enough affect to provide an entree for the reader's participation. Not much phenomenology of mind is needed to hitch the reader's interest to the personages in the floating car of Pynchonesque romance. Our capacity for identification is promiscuous and readily climbs aboard.
Toward the end of his review Wood pointedly observes: "it is interesting that hardly one of the 'good' reviews that Against the Day has received offered any convincing account of the pleasure on the part of the reviewer." Perhaps such an account will emerge when the novel, through the conversing and conversion of its readers, has been more fully understood; for in the case of such a peculiar novel pleasure is likely to follow on understanding. But understanding begins with pleasure, too, and the novel furnishes a good deal of pleasure--or, rather, pleasures, for it does seem that the novel's size, variety, and number of characters are calculated to defy any unified account of its effects. In the meantime, there is the pleasure in the novel's unfailingly sharp, evocative writing, which can with equal facility describe a "subarenaceous" voyage and sum up a character's sense of the dolorous passage of time during a winter spent in a half-deserted Balkan mountain village. There is the pleasure in this protean novel's wealth of conceptual intrigue, not just in the way it heaps on the meanings, allusions, puzzles, anal arcana, but in the way it generates a geometric expansion of metaphors for its own conceptualization: a time-machine, an airy balloon ride, a foray into the beyond, a charting of frontiers, a web of anarchy, a shifty map of utopian locales "less geographic than to be measured along axes of sorrow and loss," a fluid four-dimensional space in which reality, fantasy, metaphor, and metaphysics continually vie for imaginative priority. Pynchon's realism is hermeneutically saturated; it plays along with a certain idea of reading as decipherment, of connecting the clues even as one knows they are not going to gibe, so that the tease of meaning constantly undergoes the dialectic whereby it is undone and then--what else?--renewed, which provides, for those with large negative capability, a true graph of our attempts to make sense of things plotted over time.
But to emphasize, as nearly all the reviewers have, this conceptual, hermeneutic side of Pynchon is to miss the other, more compelling side that consists in the novel's haunting moods, without which the novel would indeed be but a vast semantic equation with endless variables and no solution. So there is also a good deal of pleasure in following the poetically rendered inner histories of the characters as they rove across the world, and in registering the nuances of crepuscular awareness those histories veer into, shades of twentieth-century disquiet, giving us the sense that we might be fathoming the birth of our own contemporary consciousness. Toward the end of the novel, when enough time has been logged for the characters to outlive their quests and for their purposes to be reabsorbed by their lives, a strange alchemy occurs; as virtually every major character reappears, as the coincidental meetings proliferate, as perspective recedes and the action tapers toward the blankness of what's beyond the final page, the novel itself has become its own protagonist with an ebbing life, which is to say that the novel's self-referentiality is so complete that the shape of fiction itself is imbued with the sadness of time and mortality. In Pynchon's latest and, if the title of the novel's final section, "Rue de Depart," may be taken as a double entendre, last novel, the implicit self-referentiality of The Crying of Lot 49 has reached its logical fulfillment, an uncanny, Escher-like involution in which the fictionality of the characters becomes part of their being, as if the fact that they derive their reality from their existence in a novel had become the foundation of their being in the fiction contained by the novel--as if Pynchon, by dint of imaginative pressure exerted over the course of decades, had at last bent the novel into a shape in which fiction precedes existence.
Wood's latest book is almost entirely free of reference to the "contemporary big novel" and "hysterical realism." After all, as he has made clear all along, he regards those phenomena as examples of a type of fiction that doesn't work. But while discussing David Foster Wallace be does suggestively declare: "Whitman calls America 'the greatest poem,' but if this is the case then America may represent a mimetic danger to the writer, the bloating of one's own poem with that rival poem, America." He is pointing to the particularly American ambition, which goes back to the Puritans, to make one's work stand for the national soul. The danger would be that the writer be led by this ambition to try to take in too much, to swamp his art in the attempt to get in the whole national shebang. There are certainly plenty of examples of overburdened, overreaching works in the American corpus, but, even so, behind this dire caution a la Harold Bloom one can hear a prescription for modesty, and while in the realm of criticism modesty might be called for, it is itself a peril to literary ambition. One cannot, of course, put the whole of America in one's poem or novel, but one can create burgeoning convoluted analogs that will serve to suggest a sense of boggling complexity of the whole. One could think of this as a danger only if one were attached to an ideal of the novel as something contained, shapely, and under control. But the risk the extroverted authors take is to allow themselves to appear out of control, overwhelmed, delirious, as a way of being true to their sense that the whole they reach for is no longer rationally cognizable. So they seek to reflect by distorting, to turn the space-time feel of the novel into a metaphor for our sped-up state, to break with contained economies in order to attain rare aesthetic results on the other side of rightness. It is hard to imagine that our relation to our time and history will get any less self-consciously vexed, and that unlikely contortions of the novel will not continue to be required to give it expression.…
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Publication information: Article title: James Wood's Case against "Hysterical Realism" and Thomas Pynchon. Contributors: Staiger, Jeffrey - Author. Magazine title: The Antioch Review. Volume: 66. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2008. Page number: 634+. © 1999 Antioch Review, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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