Monday, October 1, 2007

Lattice Pray

Dave EggersSkewering the Eggers set has been a cultural preoccupation of most literate people who fancy themselves critics for a good while now, but it has been done mostly without the flair or panache one would hope to see. (The closest yet may be the most oblique—Keith Gessen's profile of that Eggers-obsessed California kid in the first n+1.) Partly the fault lies with the subject—for those who dislike the "Brooklyn Boys [and Girls] of Wonder," as Melvin Jules Bukiet of The American Scholar calls them—Eggers, Foer, Krauss—you know who we're talking about—the flaws and felonies are well known and patently obvious, defying by their very simplicity any effort at incision or deconstruction. Besides, it's very hard to ridicule the depressingly risible.

The American Scholar essay isn't it either, but it's close. Ish. For added fun, Benjamin Kunkel (himself of n+1) gets lumped in with all the others. Bet he'll appreciate that.

The same kind of critiques are made—the woebegone optimism is tiresome and tactless, the whole crew trucks along on juvenile sentiments that somehow have avoided showing the wear of their high mileage, and what Bukiet calls "the perception and implicit self-congratulation of wonder."

But what Bukiet picks up on—and amply shows—is that the common fault of these writers seems to have something or other to do with, as he says, the common possesion of a "
pallid soft-core religion — aka spirituality — faith without frenzy, without animal sacrifice." I find this to be a strong argument, and strongly made in its various demonstrations.

What I don't find to be compelling is his attempt to link this pseudo-spiritual kitsch so strongly to Brooklyn, and more particularly to a lineage of Brooklyn or Brooklyn-related writers. He makes his own exceptions (Lethem is a very Brooklyn writer who doesn't do the Eggers routine; Chabon resembles the BBOW in a certain way, yet is more connected to San Fran [not to mention Pittsburgh]) and he makes a very poor show of establishing a true line of descent, rather than a literary historical scatterplot of likely suspects. The problem with making an argument contra parentes is that the family tree one traces could always have more branches. Bukiet quite rightly points out the young adult genre inflections present in these books—very well then, why not blame Robert Cormier? Whitman lived in Brooklyn, loved the idea and sensation of wonder—why isn't he mentioned, held culpable, perhaps qualified and excused?

The question to ask, I believe, is not, or not only, what authors influenced these Children of Wonder, but rather what in the world they're reacting to that deflects them into such narrow channels of soft spirituality and hazy swipes at profundity. Bukiet offers one quasi-answer: "
Though the individual authors are vociferously leftist, they remember and yearn for Ronald Reagan’s blissed-out Morning in America, during which they spent their formative years." I find that a lot more compelling than any attempt to link them to Betty Smith and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, even if it isn't very thorough an observation.

I don't have an answer at the ready—I have some ideas which I may work on, but I would like to offer this:

Bukiet mocks (and I carry it on with the title of this post) Eggers's "lattice" —the network of "
my people, collective youth, people like me, hearts ripe, brains aglow . . . people who have everything in common no matter where they’re from, all these people know all the same things and truly hope for the same things." Clearly it's an absurd passage, but that's not what I'd like to point out—I would instead draw attention to the meagerness of "lattice" as either a description or a metaphor for this communion of Believers. A lattice certainly does not describe what Eggers means here, but it works very flaccidly as a metaphor for it as well. It sort of does the job, because we know what he means, and we know what lattice means, and we grant him the rest on goodwill or faith or some combination of the two, but the word is really just hanging out, inactive, one might even say dangling.

The Children of Wonder are the Children of Dangling Metaphors. You've heard of dangling modifiers? Well, here's a new malformation. The Children of Wonder may do many things well artistically, but one thing I believe not a single one of them has succeeded in is the employment of metaphor to do real artistic work. Kunkel is the only one who has tried—with his indecision-curing pill—but neither the metaphor nor the novel seems to have worked out fully. (I have to confess here that I have not read the book, but I would be surprised if the combined weight of a number of friends and reviews is completely off-base.)

The failure of the Young Contemporary American Serious Novel is a failure of its metaphorical imagination. I believe they can all sense this failure, so they reach for what metaphor should be bringing them anyway—transcendence, or at least some movement between planes of experience and emotion. Thus we have something like Bee Season—the spelling, clearly intended to be a metaphor, doesn't work and dangles, so Goldberg reaches for transcendence hamfistedly by plastering it with adhesive tape and throwing it at the Kabbalah. Eggers can't find a way to tell his story metaphorically and can't stand telling it straight, so he fudges and goes metafictional—instant transcendence, albeit only on the aesthetic plane. Foer clearly becomes lost at various points in Everything Is Illuminated and bails himself out with magical realism whenever he does. Granted, I like those parts better than the parts where he's sure of himself, but the process is the same.

When stuck, dangle a metaphor before the reader and jump, and hope the reader believes you got there honestly. Or dangle a postmodern bauble and pretend you can make it disappear if you want to, then drop it and walk away. It's bullshit either way.

Another thought: Critiques of this set of writers often somehow reference Wood's critique of hysterical realism. It has some validity for this group, although I think they are not quite the same stripe. For one thing, hysterical realism, at least in Wood's account, focuses on two main things—paranoia and multiculturalism—which the very white, Panglossian-monist Children of Wonder don't fit at all. Where Wood's critique is still applicable lies in its charge that hysterical realism evades reality whenever it threatens the author's sensibility or pet paranoia. The Children of Wonder carry this to a new extreme, I think—they could be called flinching realists. When reality threatens to reject their solipsism and immaturity, they flinch away from it and smile at themselves.

Flinching Realists—I think that could work. I hate "Brooklyn Boys of Wonder" or my more inclusive Children of Wonder, and the n+1 term "Eggersards" is deplorable. I'd actually prefer "Dangling Realists" for the reasons mentioned above, but I doubt either that or flinching realists will catch on.

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