Karl Ove Knausgaard, Sheila Heti, Tao Lin: When did we start calling memoir “literary fiction,” and why? The roman à clef predates these contemporary writers and their lightly fictionalized works of autobiography by generations, but the 20th-century approach was comparatively roundabout. Though it’s not difficult to see through the veneer of fiction thinly spread over the surface of Saul Bellow’s Herzog (a delightfully vindictive attack on the author’s cheating ex-wife), the novel doesn’t own up to its status as autobiography. In it, Bellow strikes a tender balance: His characters differ enough from their models to afford him plausible deniability, but they are recognizable enough to function as lampoons. Philip Roth and Norman Mailer clung to their own versions of this literary charade, dutifully changing their characters’ names if not their identifying features. (How many reiterations of the same self-righteous Jewish man from New Jersey has Roth, a self-righteous Jewish man from New Jersey, cooked up in his fecund career?)
But these exercises in dissemblance have given way to Knausgaard’s six-volume leviathan of candid self-involvement—and now authors like Heti openly admit that they are not quite novelists, at least in the conventional sense. Her How Should a Person Be?, which contains passages copied verbatim from the author’s e-mail exchanges, is billed as a “novel from life.” Contemporary memoirist “fiction” flirts openly with reality, incorporating actual e-mails or letters and commenting unabashedly on the terms of its own composition. This more recent tradition has perhaps less to do with Bellow and Roth than another, lesser-known product of the 1960s: Linda Rosenkrantz’s “novel” Talk (1968), a compilation of transcribed conversations between three denizens of the New York art world that was recently reissued by New York Review Books.
Talk is set in the Long Island beach town of East Hampton in the summer of ’65, and its protagonists are the pseudonymous Marsha, Emily, and Vincent, a writer, an actress, and an artist, respectively. The conversations featured in the book are real, though Rosenkrantz has declined to reveal Emily’s and Vincent’s true identities The work’s genesis is described in the introduction by the writer Stephen Koch: Rosenkrantz, who figures as Marsha, recorded her friends’ conversations and spent the next couple of years transcribing them, condensing them, and breaking them up into chapters with titles like “Emily’s Problems Are Discussed on the Beach” and “Emily, Marsha and Vincent Discuss Orgies.” Between the first chapter, “Emily Helps Marsha Pack for the Summer,” and the last, “Marsha Unpacks from the Summer,” the three friends explore the subjects so typical of ’60s-era conversation: sex, love, art, and acid trips.
Aside from the allusions to Clement Greenberg and a few invocations of “my analyst”—a figure as central to New Yorkers in the ’60s as the omnipresent therapist is to Manhattanites today—the book rarely feels dated: Its protagonists possess the same ironic sensibilities as the white, upper-middle-class, relentlessly self-flagellating characters who populate Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls or Chris Kraus’s novel Torpor. “She has a lot of the qualities of bright people, she’s sort of cynical and bored, negative, quick,” Emily says of Marsha’s sister. One could be forgiven for imagining that she is describing the exaggerated pessimism of the disaffected twentysomethings sipping microbrews in Brooklyn today. Talk’s talk—at times neurotic and self-effacing, at times devastatingly sincere—reminds us that wry self-awareness and anxious fragility are hardly a millennial invention.
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* * *
The reputation for cultural turbulence that the ’60s enjoy is well known and well deserved. In France, the shackles of realism were beginning to loosen; partisans of the nouveau roman (the “new novel”) like Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet eschewed narrative, crafting experimental works with little patience for outdated devices like plot and character. Their compatriots, the New Wave filmmakers Agnès Varda, François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard, thumbed their noses at cinematic convention, opting for jump cuts and jumbled story lines. American literature lagged behind, as Susan Sontag lamented in a 1963 essay:
While music and the plastic arts and poetry painfully dug themselves out of the inadequate dogmas of 19th century “realism,” by a passionate commitment to the idea of progress in art and a hectic quest for new idioms and new materials, the novel has proved unable to assimilate whatever of genuine quality and spiritual ambition has been performed in its name in the 20th century.
Sontag exaggerates, but Talk was indeed one of the earlier American attempts to break with the 19th-century novelistic tradition—not just substantively, as Bellow and his cohort had already done, but also formally.
The substantive realism that preceded Rosenkrantz and her literary successors has come to stand, at least with modern audiences, for a ponderous conservatism typified by the novelist Henry James. Works like The Portrait of a Lady present us with a paradox realized: In substantively realist fiction, we are privy to much that we are structurally occluded from witnessing in real life. We observe the characters unobserved; we are with them even when they’re alone. In his masterful book How Fiction Works, the literary critic James Wood, a strong champion of substantive realism, suggests that the novel is heir to the play. While plays were staged for the benefit of a silent but looming audience, necessitating some theatricality of gesture, the novel boasts a readership invisible to its cast. Stiff though they may be, James’s novels fulfill an impossible yearning for deep interpersonal connection. They yield the sort of emotional intimacy that eludes us in everyday life, where human encounters always contain at least a trace of performance. What we want from fiction is often precisely this: a chance to be the audience as well as act in the play.
But in order to transport us into their characters’ inner worlds, substantive realist works must perform elaborate contortions. They are—they must be—artificial. In reality, however, where we inevitably participate in all of our interpersonal interactions, our presence alters the terms of our interlocutor’s engagement. In contrast with substantive realism, Rosenkrantz’s formal realism acknowledges and succumbs to these conditions. It is realistic, thus realist, insofar as it presents us with a narrative whose conditions of composition are believable. Works of formal realism contain only the sort of information that their narrators or authors, who are situated within their worlds, could realistically access: Knausgaard knows his life story, Heti knows her e-mail transcripts, and Rosenkrantz knows exactly what her friends said that summer. Works of formal realism—of memoir—are like discussions with friends: Though we often come to love their narrators, we never fully trust them. Like a friend, a formally realist fiction is fallible—and also like a friend, it senses and responds to the presence of its audience. Throughout Talk, Marsha, Emily, and Vincent comment on the intrusive tape recorder. How could they keep themselves from performing for its benefit?
For just this reason, formal realism is often less satisfying than its fantastic Jamesian alternative. It replicates the constraints we experience in our daily lives and exchanges, where we invariably come up against the ineluctable barrier of self-consciousness. Formal realism cannot quite instantiate the intimacy proper to fiction; it cannot quite expose to us the texture of someone else’s privacy, nor can it defang our habitual social trepidations.
* * *
At one point in Talk, Emily says to Vincent: “I’m coming to the conclusion that I don’t think novels can be written without the very sad and pitiful knowledge that they are totally self-conscious and ridiculous and untrue.” Talk is written with this knowledge, which breeds some measure of trust but also some measure of suspicion. The book is a friend, well-intentioned but often misleading. “It’s a very passive book on your part, and yet it’s very positive, just as you are positive but passive,” Vincent tells Marsha on their drive home from the Hamptons. He is referring, I think, to the riddle of Marsha’s (or Rosenkrantz’s) presence in the text, ostensibly as one of the three explicit voices but also, less perceptibly, as the offstage voice that structures and arranges the others. We wonder what she has omitted.
Another passive but palpable element of the book is straight men, who never make a direct appearance in any of the dialogues—Vincent is gay—but who nonetheless figure as facts to be grappled with and stumbled over. They are not just absent but lacking, the sort of object whose loss one cannot fail to notice. For Emily and Marsha, men are essentially elsewhere. “My average relationship with a man, actual talking to each other, loving each other, relating to each other, sleeping with each other, is usually one to two weeks in duration,” Marsha explains at one point. “The amount of time I spend feeling rejected, crying over it, not seeing him but living it out, is three to four years. The actual relationship is minimal in the gestalt of the whole thing. For me, the actual relationship is something to get over with so I can drop into the mud and my heart can pound dialing a certain number I’m not supposed to dial.” Dismayed by this pointed preoccupation, Vincent complains that his bright, ambitious friends so often and so tragically “let men completely destroy” them.
But Marsha and Emily manage to transform this pervasive male absence into fuel for their blazing emotional presence. They talk mostly about love: how to love without giving themselves entirely away to the objects of their love, how to love without sacrificing their friendships, how to go about loving at all when they’re so firmly lodged inside their own heads. “You know I’m really wondering, when I talk about myself and my life, I’m wondering who would be able to love a crazy person like this?” Emily confesses. Yet Talk testifies to the three friends’ ability to love one another with remarkable tenderness and tolerance—not despite their neuroses but because of them. Their prognoses for one another are hopeful. “She’s terrified of all drugs,” Emily observes of Marsha. “She needs her controls, she can’t give them up. Of course she will someday.” “You think she’ll take LSD?” Vincent replies. “No,” says Emily, “I think someday she’ll surrender, she’ll love.”
Like real conversations, the talk in Talk meanders, moving from the superficial (which tastes better, the dinner’s first clam or the last?) to the profound (how can we love after being hurt by love?). The three friends never take a situation so seriously that they can’t laugh about it—but they also understand intuitively that laughter need not imply trivialization. At one point, Marsha recounts a farcical liaison with a sadomasochistic lover. Once she’s tied up, her paramour goes around making elaborate preparations:
It was very funny. I mean here I was in this ludicrous position and he’s going through all these things, he had lotions and potions that he rubbed on all my sensitive areas, wintergreen oil that athletes use, and he’s running around very busy, busy, busy. I was laughing—I thought it was the most hysterical thing I ever saw—until all of the sudden I realized my God, my body is being stretched to death!
She knows that sex is a weighty affair, but she never forgets it’s absurd as well. Later, Emily insists that “serious people can be fun,” and Marsha responds, “They have to be both, that’s the whole thing.” The same is true of Talk, a book both personable and personal.
Admittedly, Talk falls somewhat short of fiction’s ultimate promise: It cannot guide us into the temple of an inner life. But the usual shortcomings of formal realism are unusually forgivable here. Talk is concerned with friendship and anxiety, with subduing a manic tendency toward performance in the face of other people. Marsha, Vincent, and Emily learn to trust one another by surmounting, not negating, their terror and insecurity. Rosenkrantz’s novel never tries to fix the problem of interpersonal doubt by inviting us, indubitably, into another life; nor does it attempt to eliminate the sneaking suspicion that human exchange is fraught with falsity. Talk succeeds because it manages to present us with moments of contact that ring surprisingly true, the whole apparatus of social pressure notwithstanding. And these moments could never mean as much if they came at any lower a cost.