The Novel, 2.0

Without Books, the Good Life Isn't Possible
All about fiction.
Oct. 12 2006 2:23 PM

The Novel, 2.0

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Walter,

I love your War and Peace in the time of Bush parody (perhaps you could call it War and War). Condi Rice with her adorable Russian patter and youthful sense of confusion would make for a lovely Natasha.

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When you write " … the main thing I cling to is what I was before I became a novelist," and then follow it up with, "I was curious," you really hit me in the kishkes. You make me look sadly at the bed-prone, keyboard-strumming gastropod I have become. You make me dream. Dream of the past.

What follows may well be filed under the rubric "An Old Man Speaks," so readers with faster broadband connections are advised to open up another window on their MacBooks and toggle between my tale of woe and something more appealing.

Before I became a novelist, I attended the Oberlin Institute for Special People out in the American Midwest, a school brimming with ambitious musicians; clever sculptors; sexy, muscular dancers; and other hard-core lovers of the arts. When I graduated in the mid-'90s, I moved to New York, where I met all kinds of people, some from the Institute, some not. We were a motley group to be sure, hardly a writers' collective, and, in fact, only I ended up pursuing writing. The rest followed their lifestyle choices to become a lawyer for an investment bank, a film student, a professor of American history, an economist, an inmate of a Florida penitentiary, and so forth.

We weren't walking "spectacles of expression," to borrow your words, but we were curious, and our curiosity was rooted in literature. We talked about books casually. We didn't strain to find meaning in them. Our lives were a complex weave of love and wonder, desire and melancholy, alcohol and drug use, friendship and romance, fear of death and fear of life, work and more work. But our lives were also peopled by fictional characters who sauntered through our waking days and lingered in our dreams. We saw the dot-com boom through the gargantuan appetites of John "Slick" Self, the protagonist of Martin Amis' Money (set in the Thatcher era, but close enough). We saw our crappy paralegal jobs through the prism of Bartleby and wondered when we, too, would "prefer not to."

When our hearts were broken, we cried into our Pilseners while referencing Kundera's hapless lovers. We walked through New York, as literary a city as the world has ever seen, with everyone from Wharton's Newland Archer to Ellison's Invisible Man by our side. This wasn't about education or self-expression or our lights shining brightly after we were gone. We weren't out to learn anything about ourselves. We were out to have fun while assuaging our miseries, and any moron back then could have told you that without books, the good life simply wasn't possible.

Now forgive this Old Man for implying that there aren't young 'uns out there, tome in hand, drink in another hand, mind at the ready. I know they're out there. I met most of them at The New Yorker Festival last week, and you can find many of the others reading and writing in the MFA programs, the one place where you can still be fairly certain of finding the literary life.

But for many others, the possibilities of readership have effectively been closed off by our flickering, cynical world—a world dazzled by the fast-forward button, a world that equates standing still with nonbeing, a world whose inhabitants feel a gnawing anger at some missing, nameless thing. "I don't really read fiction," people tell me, usually in a tone bordering on the accusatory. "I mean, these days, isn't it just a bunch of people using language to try to sound clever?"

Yes, that's exactly what it is!

"But I can get the same thing quicker from a blog. Or from my hairdresser."

Some blogs do grab me with their smarts and erudition (I'm thinking of you, Maud Newton), and my hairdresser is full of sage advice. But fiction still holds the keys to the kingdom. It is an encounter with what you rightly term "the weighty, stationary … gloomy monolith." You're talking about "our true natures," and I agree with you completely. But I'm also talking about death. Death resides not in the blogosphere, it sullies not the souls of people hard-wired for progress and acceleration, and for the millions of Americans whose main novel is the evangelical-friendly English Standard Version Bible, it exists not at all. But to fiction readers, it matters. Excruciatingly so.

So, what's wrong with the old model? Isn't it enough for the novel to give the reader some entertainment while reminding her that she will soon be gone? "Our lives are born ceaselessly into the past," you write. "It's sad." Yes, but what a sadness! To see Nabokov's poor professor Pnin running the water fountain for that ungrateful squirrel. To witness that ferry sliding into its slip with its passengers "crushed and jostling like apples fed down a chute" on the first page of Manhattan Transfer. To catch a glimpse of the strange, sad, analog world passing unseen (and unsung) before our busy eyes.

Gary

Gary Shteyngart is the author of the novels Absurdistanand The Russian Debutante's Handbook. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Travel & Leisure, Granta, and many other publications.

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