A genre is dissolving. If the novel breaks out of its gate with Daniel Defoe’s mock-diary Robinson Crusoe and the implausible epistolary excess of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and the weird, hysterical fantasies of the Gothics, the form almost immediately turns stolid at the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Eighteenth-century authors winked at their readers, hardly expecting literal belief in their high concepts, but rather enjoyment, empathy and perhaps enlightenment. The aim of the nineteenth-century novelist, with some exceptions–Dickens, say–was to render the parlor conversations, the romantic entanglements, the financial manipulations and the Continental wars of the world beyond the author’s study.
Sadly, fictional realism, a misnomer from the get-go because artists have always highlighted one aspect of experience and ignored another, calcified into naturalism, which claims absolute fidelity to brute existence. Thus we have Zola’s tedious Nana in place of Tolstoy’s luminous Anna. This is doubly dulling because, at the same time, new technologies and media have made pure literary verisimilitude superfluous. Not that the shape of the novel is circumscribed by its competition; journalism, photography and film are termites nibbling at the basically sound foundation of the house of fiction, but the rules have indeed changed. Upton Sinclair could still write The Jungle, which swayed legislation, but Jacob Riis’s slum snapshots accomplished the same thing in an instant. When it comes to representation, a picture is worth a thousand words.
So what’s a writer to do? Compelled by nature to string words together, loath to take up a squeegee instead of a pen, the novelist shifts to the less easily representable. Literature moves in an ascending trajectory from the Modernist peregrinations through internal consciousness of Joyce, Proust and Woolf into the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez, and then into a uniquely contemporary crackpot realism exemplified by “world writers” like India’s Salman Rushdie, Israel’s David Grossman, Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk and Japan’s Haruki Murakami. They’re not world writers merely because they’re foreign–au contraire. Rather than using literature to examine the world, they use their world–or a quirky simulacrum thereof–to examine literature. Their home is neither the steppe nor the prairie but the library. They write in an international format that transcends locality and irks some critics, who see them as navel-gazing, if occasionally brilliant, solipsists who avoid the moral and emotional core of life that “ought” to be the proper domain of the novel.
These critics–reporters really–who disdain works not easily fact-checked are wrong. What these writers are aiming at is not facts but truth.
Among the Americans usually named as part of this cohort are the founding fathers, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, and their literary offspring, David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers and, the brattiest kid of all, William T. Vollmann. Vollmann is included in this family portrait because he too has written what critic James Wood would call a “‘big, ambitious novel.'” Wood is otherwise one of the finest critics around, yet his yearning for a return to Chekhovian realism reveals an astonishing blind spot to the most significant literature of today. Note the pejorative quotation marks with which he surrounds “big, ambitious novel.” Would he prefer a “small, lackadaisical novella”?
Vollmann is frequently mentioned in this company for many of the wrong reasons and a few of the right ones. Yes, he’s ferociously smart, unabashedly interested in ideas and information, and passionately dedicated to the word in an era that worships images; but he’s placed here mostly because he’s a white man of a certain age whose books are more than an inch thick. Actually, he couldn’t be more different from his peers.