Who’s Done More Damage to Fictional Narrative?

Modernists?

Or Richard Nixon? A passage from Charles Baxter‘s essay “Dysfunctional Narratives, or: ‘Mistakes Were Made'”:

What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying their responsibility for their own actions? So what if they are, in effect, refusing to tell their own stories accurately? So what if the President of the United States is making himself out to be, of all things, a victim? Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling. You can argue that only a coherent narrative can manage to explain public events, and you can reconstruct a story if someone says, “I made a mistake,” or “We did that.” You can’t reconstruct a story—you can’t even know what the story is—if everyone is saying, “Mistakes were made.” Who made them? Everybody made them and no one did, and it’s history anyway, so let’s forget about it. Every story is a history, however, and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history. The past, under these circumstances, becomes an unreadable mess. When we hear words like “deniability,” we are in the presence of narrative dysfunction, a phrase employed by the poet C. K. Williams to describe the process by which we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.

Baxter picks up that essay’s idea in a Q&A with the Prairie Schooner blog, updating his argument to include the current batch of presidential candidates. (Though didn’t this problem, to the extent it even qualifies as a problem, start with Laurence Sterne?)

More Sad Literary Young Men

At the New York Review of Books blog, Elaine Blair delivers a kind of update on Katie Roiphe‘s 2010 broadside on the (in Roiphe’s view) insipid boyishness of the generation of male novelists who followed Updike, Mailer, and Roth. Blair is a little more charitable, arguing that male writers’ diffidence about sex and seduction has as much to do with appealing to women in the book-buying marketplace as women in general. So:

When you see the loser-figure in a novel, what you are seeing is a complicated bargain that goes something like this: yes, it is kind of immature and boorish to be thinking about sex all the time and ogling and objectifying women, but this is what we men sometimes do and we have to write about it. We fervently promise, however, to avoid the mistake of the late Updike novels: we will always, always, call our characters out when they’re being self-absorbed jerks and louts. We will make them comically pathetic, and punish them for their infractions a priori by making them undesirable to women, thus anticipating what we imagine will be your judgments, female reader. Then you and I, female reader, can share a laugh at the characters’ expense, and this will bring us closer together and forestall the dreaded possibility of your leaving me.

I’m skeptical of the idea that fiction writers overtly game the marketplace; Sam Lipsyte or Gary Shteyngart, two male writers Blair calls out for special attention, seem no more interested in coddling demographics than Updike did. The shift Blair describes is more likely a reflection of changing cultural circumstances for middle-class men. In The Ask, for instance, Lipsyte’s everyschlub is exceedingly aware of his responsibilities as a husband and father, a situation Lipsyte brilliantly mines for comedy; the Updike who wrote Couples could write about characters who readily punted on those responsibilities.

Two Reviews

Coming off my recent back-and-forth with Jennifer Howard about Henry AdamsDemocracy, it was fun to think about Thomas Mallon‘s new novel, Watergate, which I reviewed for the Barnes & Noble Review. Mallon has a long view on D.C. political history—his 1994 novel Henry and Clara is sparked by the Lincoln assassination and 2008’s Fellow Travelers is set in the McCarthy era—and Watergate benefits from that knowingness. The novel doesn’t sensationalize the events of the break-in, the way a lot of historical novelists might be tempted to; in fact, it barely depicts them. What Mallon focuses on is much the same thing Adams did: The internal scheming and positioning that define the federal city’s culture.

Watergate isn’t hurting for attention—at least not from where I sit inside the Beltway. It would be a slightly more fair world, though, if Lia Purpura‘s new essay collection, Rough Likeness, picked up some of the same heat. (I reviewed it for the Minnapolis Star-Tribune.) It’s a collection of 18 short lyric essays on subjects that have little in common except Purpura’s interest in studying them with an electron microsope’s intensity: buzzards, tools, advice columns, a sign on a bridge, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Against ‘Gunmetal,'” an essay about cliche, is one of the best things I’ve read in the young year, and since it’s available online I feel less bad about quoting it at length; here she’s questioning why that particular gray we call gunmetal gray has earned that militaristic adjective:

It’s the color of a well-used plumber’s wrench. A perfectly battered railroad tie. I try on: A burnt-spoon sky. Below a sky where we sat down, under wrench-colored clouds. Before the sky opened and a rain as hard as railroad ties fell . . . It’s the color of a cataract (which very like “promontory” is not much in use, ever-nailed as both are to the nineteenth century, provenance of the Lake District poets). It’s a kinked intestine-gone-bloodless-pale sky. Translucent, unfeathered, fallen-chick silver. Powdered zinc. Stripped olive pit. Dirty-kid water in a porcelain tub. Colloidal and swirly as milk in tea. Farinaceous. Clayey. Grime in pressed tin. So why “gunmetal?” If it’s something about the act of smithing, why not things from the worlds of cooper, tinker, wainwright, glazier? The throwback quality’s engaging, authentic—the forging, the shine, the added bluing, the blacking, the browning—but mostly, I think, it’s rugged and hip to suggest you know something about guns; enough at least to toss a likeness around. You have to like a likeness to toss it (note kids running, jostling, outshouting each other as they reach a car, after school: I call shotgun!—not side saddle! not the seat next to my mom).

Purpura talks a little more about the book in the video below:

“Democracy”: Media Circuses and New Monuments

This is the fifth post in a cross-blog conversation Jennifer Howard and I are having about Henry Adams’ novel “Democracy.” See Jennifer’s most recent post, “Swamp Creatures and Monuments,” here.

Jennifer,

You ask about how recognizable the Washington, D.C., in Democracy is compared to the one we live in today. My instinct is to say not at all. You rightly note that D.C. lacked some of its familiar monuments at the time the novel was published, but I wonder if Adams would have bothered mentioning them even if they were there. Has expresses little interest in looking at Washington as a physical place: His pastoral vision of the city, as described in the trip to Mount Vernon, takes the city in at a distance, and it pretty quickly devolves into another caustic swipe at the town. The city for Adams is something more abstracted—more of a mood or a “culture” (this novel practically demands the scare quotes for that word). When Ratcliffe wants to start bending the President’s ear about a scheme, he waits until he’s back from town for a while, so he can “begin to feel the effect of a Washington atmosphere.” [83]

And let’s skip toward the very end, in which Sybil wraps up the various intrigues by pointing out that “after what has happened, we can never go back to Washington.” [184] Sybil is not exactly stricken with regret about that—there are the great ruins of Europe and the Middle East to take in. But she says she’ll miss riding with Carrington into Virginia, and that scene is one of few passages in the novel stripped of any of Adams’ smirking: “Then reaching the Virginia side they cantered gaily up the laurel-margined road, with glimpses of woody defiles, each carrying its trickling stream and rich in promise of summer flowers, while from point to point they caught glorious glimpses of the distant city and river. … The day was blue and gold; everything smiled and sparkled in the crisp freshness of the morning.” [107] Adams does have a soft spot for the place—he just needs to get out of town to find it.

But in terms of Democracy describing a city I recognize, I think the media circus that’s described in Chapter 11 feels true, at least for somebody who experiences Washington’s party culture almost exclusively via the Reliable Source column in the Post. The scene is a party for the duchess of “Saxe-Baden-Hombourg,” who’s born and English princess, and Adams neatly skewers the way even the most patriotic Americans prostrate themselves before somebody with a title: she and the duke receive “the respect which all republicans who have a large income derived from business feel for English royalty.” [139]

Adams is doing more than sending up politicians here, though. Madeleine, who is our stand-in as a cultural interloper suspicious of political parrying, earns the duchess’ ear for most of the evening, and I love that we first learn this fact through how their connection is reported by the media: The sketches of the event by the New York papers made Madeleine “rather shorter, and the Princess rather taller, than was strictly correct.” [147] The scene makes plain Madeleine’s place in the pecking order, and how that pecking order is established. I don’t doubt that there are plenty of people who scan the boldfaced names in the Reliable Source in the morning, hunting for their own, and then worrying about how they were mentioned if they did happen to appear.

Thinking on it now, that seems like a missed opportunity for Adams—from my skewed perspective a century and a half on, I wished there was more of that outsider’s perspective, a sense of how the media and other citizens look at the city. (We hear much about Ratcliffe’s beloved Peonia, Illinois, but not about its residents. It’s the 1880s equivalent of flyover country.) Madeleine is a fine heroine to spend a little time with, but there is a lack of outside air that can feel a little stifling.

So, then: Great D.C. novel or not? Your mentions of monuments reminded me of Andrew Holleran‘s brilliant 2006 novel, Grief, which exploits them so well. Holleran so often describes those landmarks as tomblike and funereal, but his tone is more sympathetic to the city, which he admires and brings more nuance to than Adams’ satire. “There’s something still halfhearted about Washington, as if the country cannot make up its mind about government itself—a city that, block by block, weaves in and out of grandeur and shabbiness,” Holleran writes. And maybe I wanted a bit more grandeur out of Democracy—I laughed at the digs, even the cheap ones, but D.C. is more than its shabbiness, physically or politically. If this isn’t a great D.C. novel for you, what novels come closer? Can we take Adams’ acid observations and combine them with parts of other novels, Frankenstein-like, and make a more perfect one?

Democracy: Skepticism Versus Cynicism

This is the third in a series of posts between myself and Jennifer Howard about Henry Adams’ 1880 novel, Democracy. Read her first post.

Jennifer,

Your point about Madeleine’s transgression is right, and, yes, a little chilling: Her mistake isn’t so much getting stuck between two romantic rivals, Ratcliffe and Carrington, but within the politics that drive the competition between them in the first place. Like you, I can try read Democracy as a romance, but recognize that doing so only goes so far because—as you point out, Adams can be so black-hearted. Maybe he’s set the tone for the serious novel about Washington politics, which has to strip itself of optimism lest you come off as a Pollyanna. I’m reading Thomas Mallon‘s forthcoming Watergate—a novel that owes a lot to Democracy, I think, and which also reminded me of the imposing statue that Adams commissioned for his wife’s grave marker. It’s jet black, scoured clean of anything that suggests redemption, and evokes bottomless grief. And yet, when ever I wind up in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, I always make a point to visit the replica there. That’s just the kind of person he was.

So while I want to be reassuring and say that there are points where Adams wants to give democracy a chance, I don’t think his heart was ever in it—there’s no silver lining he can’t find a storm cloud in. But I’ve wondered, perhaps like you, why I found the novel so enjoyable in spite of all that, because I wouldn’t enjoy a novel that simply took whacks at D.C., however cleverly.

I think a couple of things are at play—aside from Adams’ quick wit, which I mentioned in my first post about the book. Adams can also brandish what I suppose you might call slow wit, a way of setting a scene that captures both its beauty and it complexity. Think of the virtuoso opening paragraph of chapter six, when we finally escape the airless gloom of D.C. and head down the Potomac to Mount Vernon. The passage shifts from charming and pastoral—“one is conscious of walking in an atmosphere that is warm, palpable, radiant with possibilities.” Soon enough, though, Adams reminds us that however pretty Virginia might be in February, “at no other season is there so much [guile].… Wealth, office, power are at auction. Who bids highest? Who hates with most venom? Who intrigues with most skill? Who has done the dirtiest, the meanest, the darkest, and the most, political work?” [58]

I won’t try to convince you that this is proof that Adams is an upbeat guy because he can appreciate D.C. in spring just like you and I can. But I do think the scene exists because Adams wants to remind us that he’s operating with a moral compass—by bringing his characters out into the outdoors, he highlights the immorality of what’s going on back in the capitol, and frames the Ratcliffe’s venality as not just as a matter of breaking the law but as a kind of crime against nature.

Madeleine herself exemplifies this kind of push-and-pull, trapped as she is between a culture of corruption and her own better nature. About midway through the novel she makes a crucial observation:

Underneath the scum floating on the surface of politics, Madeleine felt that there was a sort of healthy ocean current of honest purpose, which swept the scum before it, and kept the mass pure. [98]

Of course, later in the novel she’ll make a discovery about Ratcliffe that’s proof that the place is just scummed up again. But I think the fact that she makes that discovery is part of Adams’ point: D.C. is not in a downward spiral so much as a state of constant flux, an ugly but essential process of scumming and de-scumming. For all the criticism people make about reformers throughout the book, nobody suggests that the reformers’ instinct will ever be absent in the capitol.

And that’s the root of Madeleine’s heroism: Adams brings her to the very edge of the corruption she observes, but never lets her fall off the cliff. That feeling is never more clear to me than in the moments after Ratcliffe delivers what may be the most cynical and calculating marriage proposal in all of literature. She’s “fitted better than any woman I ever saw, for public duties,” he tells her. “Your place is there. You belong among those who exercise an influence beyond their time.” [154] Setting aside her eventual decision (and we’ll get to that when we talk about the book’s climax, I suspect), Madeleine is well aware of what she’s getting sucked into, and the dangers inherent in it. Adams describes the question being “presented to her face like a pistol.”[158]

So there’s your bright side, though I admit it’s pretty dim: In Madeleine we’re rooting for an uncalculating intelligence and (to use a word that wasn’t in use in Adams’ time) self-actualization. She’s our hero because, unlike so many around her, she “dissected her own feelings and was always wondering whether they were real or not.” [108]

But we’ve barely gotten past the three characters at the core of the plot. What did you make of some of others swimming around the narrative, like Madeleine’s sister, Sybil, or Lords Dunbeg and Skye, or Victoria Dare, or Hartbeest Schneidekoupon? What role are they playing? Comic relief? Different degrees of striving in a status-obsessed city?

Democracy: A Funny Town for a Woman

This is the first post in a discussion on Jennifer Howard‘s blog and mine about Henry Adams‘ 1880 novel, Democracy. For more background, you can read my introductory post as well as Jennifer’s.

Jennifer,

So, why did we decide to do this again? Right: We were both talking about the gaps in our reading when it comes to novels about Washington, D.C. Though I’m not the native you are—I moved here in 2007—I’ve tried to catch up as best I can with the city’s literary background. I’m left with mixed feelings. I admire Ward Just, though his fiction mostly sticks to legislators and journalists; Edward P. Jones has written brilliant stories set in the District, so brilliant I keep wishing he’d write a District-set novel to match The Known World; Christopher Buckley can be very funny when he skewers the town, but he does it with a very broad satirical brush. In the same way D.C. has a kind of unstable, not-quite-there status as a non-state, there seems to be a great novel about the District that’s still waiting to be written.

Is Democracy that book? Maybe it’s too old or specific in focus to qualify itself, but it does clear a very high hurdle in making legislative parrying entertaining. Writing about Democracy in 2010, Christopher Hitchens identified one problem with writing about the federal D.C. that trips up a lot of writers (or perhaps prompts them to avoid the subject altogether): “Washington is and always has been irretrievably bogged down in process,” he writes. “And process doesn’t generally make for electrifying prose.” What struck me almost immediately about Adams’ novel is that while it doesn’t exactly make process electrifying, he can often makes it very funny. The tone of the novel seems exactly right for a wonkish culture that functions through scheming and horse-trading but dresses it up in proclamations of egalitarianism and high values. Once you’ve finished it, it’s clear that the first laugh line in the book is the title of the book itself; it ought to be in scare quotes (“Democracy”) to make clear that Adams was mocking anybody who tried to apply the term to America with a straight face.*

Some of the jokes are straight gags that could have come out of Twain. The novel’s heroine, Madeleine Lightfoot Lee, is a widow arriving from New York to understand Washington’s culture in general and its power structure in particular, and we learn early that she “had not entered a church in years; she said it gave her unchristian feelings.” [11] Pondering Ratcliffe, one of the Senators who vies for her attention and affections, Adams writes that “she wanted to understand this man, to turn him inside out; to experiment on him and use him as young physiologists use frogs and kittens.” [20] Later, when Madeleine and Ratcliffe discuss Charles Darwin, she patiently tolerates the Senator’s puffing about how highly evolved legislators are as a class, before demolishing him with one line: “You are rather hard on the monkeys.” [52]

The fact that the protagonist of the novel is a woman matters a lot when it comes to the book’s sense of humor, I think. For one thing, seeing the novel from a woman’s perspective automatically makes it an outsider’s narrative, and as such open to being written as a kind of anthropology report from a strange land. (It wasn’t until 1917 that Congress had an elected female legislator—Jeannette Rankin, who just happened to be born the same year Democracy was published.)

But also, Madeleine being a woman—and an unattached one at that—amplifies the preening and egotism that consume so many of the powerful men in the novel. Part of the fun in that is watching how, over time, these men become more candid about Washington’s machinations in her presence—she hardly has to lift a finger to get these frogs dissected. In one early scene, Ratcliffe and some colleagues are gathered in Madeleine’s home, and she asks the question at the heart of the novel: “Is a respectable government impossible in a democracy?” It’s a formal parlor-chat question, and Ratcliffe responds in kind, diplomatically suggesting that if you “try to purify the government artifically…you only aggravate failure.” Another guest deems it a “very statesmanlike reply,” [37] but Adams notes the “shade of mockery” in his voice—it’s clear Ratcliffe isn’t being honest. A little later, at another party, Ratcliffe will be: “If our virtue won’t answer our purpose, we must use vice, or our opponents will put us out of office, and this was as true in Washington’s day as it is now, and always will be,” [71] he tells a fellow senator. Another guest wants to change the subject—“the conversation verges on treason,” he says. No mocking tones or shades thereof are identified; before the book is half finished Madeleine has cut through the polite gestures and found the cynicism and corrosion at the heart of the place.

There’s more to say about that, especially when it comes to some of the discoveries that Madeleine makes about Ratcliffe and his rival Carrington, and in the romantic subplots involving Madeleine and her sister, Sibyl. But I’ve a typed enough already. Your turn, Jennifer: Did the book make you laugh? Could this story have worked with a male lead?

*Adams, who wrote the book anonymously and wasn’t identified as its author until 35 years after it came out, had reasons to be bitter. Slate ran a fine backgrounder on Adams and the book last year.

Some Programming Notes

I have a review of George Pelecanos‘ new novel, What It Was, at Washington City Paper. I had the rare luxury of an extended word count, so I tried to riff a little about how the new book (much like his last novel, The Cut) cultivates a more optimistic tone than his earlier crime novels. Snippet:

He hasn’t written a book fully set in the ‘70s since his 1997 breakthrough, King Suckerman, and since his 2005 novel, Drama City, he’s been committed to writing about the District as it’s lived in now—the past, when it appears, takes the form of cinematic flashback revealing some old mistake that requires correction. But read The Cut and What It Was alongside each other and it’s clear they actually both go the same way, despite the four-decade distance between their settings. The two novels represent Pelecanos in an increasingly optimistic mode about the District; he’s still fully aware of the city’s flaws, but he’s more interested in sorting out what kind of maturity (and manliness) is necessary to overcome it.

I have a shorter review of Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, The Odds, at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It’s not as ambitious as his previous novel, last year’s Emily, Alone, but it’s a fine, slim tale about salvaging a marriage. In an interview with the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog, O’Nan explained that (spoiler alert) he cut the story short, I think to its benefit: “I was going to follow them home and show how the money doesn’t solve their problems, only prolongs things, the weekend ultimately becoming a painful memory, but then I thought, why not let them have this moment?”

If you’re in New York this weekend, tomorrow night I’ll be participating on a panel at the Center for Fiction about criticism, joined by a group of very smart people. There’ll be two moderators, National Book Critics Circle president Eric Banks and Bookforum editor Michael Miller, and two copanelists whose work I’ve enjoyed, novelist Rivka Galchen and essayist Elif Batuman.

A reminder: Next week I’ll be blogging about Henry Adams‘ 1880 novel Democracy with Jennifer Howard, who’ll be weighing in on her blog. It’ll be fun; hope you can join us.