Saturday, October 31, 2009

American Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Via Mark Athitakis's Twitter feed, I found this snarky little exercise from Colson Whitehead. The set-up is that Whitehead is thinking about what kind of novel to write next, and he's set up a dartboard for the purpose, with slices labeled "Encyclopedic," "Realism," "Ethnic Bildungsroman," "About a Little Known Historical Fact," "Fabulist," and a few others.

The one that draws the most venom and yet still seems (to me) the most accurate is Realism:
Take this test. When you read “These dishes have been sitting in the sink for days,” do you think (a) This is an indicator of my inner weather, or (b) Why don’t they do the dishes? Does the phrase “I’m going as far away from here as my broken transmission will get me, and then I’ll take it from there” make you think (a) Somebody understands me, or (b) Why don’t they stay and talk it out? What is more visually appealing, (a) a Pall Mall butt floating in a coffee mug, or (b) those new Pop Art place mats in the Crate & Barrel catalog? If you answered (a), do we have a genre for you.
Maybe I have my own rather unreasonably venomous feelings about dirty realism (or what Mark McGurl calls "lower middle class modernism"), or maybe the genre truly has tapped itself out, like the veins in a junkie's arm. Or maybe it's just a question of too many imitators—I mean, I liked Raymond Carver when I was seventeen too. Haven't read him since, and I'm not sure to what degree I would still like him. But…

These questions seem rather moot when it comes to this slim collection of short stories, now nominated for a National Book Award. The stories preserve all the forms, digging down to the human bedrock of destitution, despair, drug use, and desire. It's like Denis Johnson with all the cool rubbed off. While occasionally experimenting with form (the list-structure of "The Solutions to Brian's Problem"), or even trying to bootstrap itself into some third-person variety of stream-of-consciousness ("The Inventor, 1972"), most of the volume seems to be mired in a no-man's-land between detachment and bathos, a place where physical degradations can be described clinically but much care is expended to name precisely brands and conditions of irrelevant objects which by their specificity are supposed to take up the emotional weight—the make and model of a car supposedly more eloquent than its driver in attesting to his condition.

"Authenticity" has usually played a leading role in the success (or at least the praise) of dirty realism, operating as a sort of deus ex machina saving the story at the last moment; despite the often spastic dialogue, the dull, earnest details, and the unwinning characters, if there is a true moment of identification and transcendence near the end, authenticity wells up and flows over and through the bathetic elements that have preceded it, fusing them into an artifact of authenticity: this is what life is like for some people.

There is an inherent "there but for the grace of G-d go I" coupling of pity and terror to this type of storytelling, a fact which is not lost on anyone. The objective is not to create a class consciousness (like the proletarian fiction of the 1930s and 1940s), but to create a consumer consciousness. The specificity of brands and conditions of consumer goods is not an empty gesture toward verisimilitude but a means of removing the world of this fiction from the situation of the reader, a separation underwritten by the stratification of consumer goods: if I smoked, it wouldn't be Pall Malls (and when I drink, it's generally not Jim Beam), and that has made, one could say, all the difference. I am defined as not being a part of the story but rather its reader because the goods I consume are very different from those its characters consume.

Or worse, I am differentiated from the characters by their consumerism of completely unbranded items, trinkets and tchotchkes, like the following:
In the center of the master bed sits an ancient nest of twigs containing pale blue robins' eggs (collected and blown by a great grandmother), which forms a nativity scene with a pair of wooden dolls. A dozen old-fashioned clothespins are laid out side-by-side across the foot of the bed like children at a reunion lining up for the group photo. Figurines and portraits long invisible to the family on the hallway bookshelf in their old juxtapositions have suddenly reappeared: the rocks painted to look like trolls mingle with the miniature bronze pigs, goats, and dinosaurs. These creatures now gaze upon a framed photo of the daughter with her gymnastics trophy. (The daughter switched from gymnastics to swimming two years ago when she shot up four inches in height, right after this portrait was taken.)
A few words about the situation of this excerpt, taken from the first story, "The Trespasser." As one can see from the title, there has been a home invasion, and a family has returned to their house to find many things destroyed and many things dislocated (like those items above); their home has been used in their absence as a meth den. But the trespassers also, through their odd re-locations of the family's forgotten objects, provide a (grossly overdetermined and yet still somehow banal) return of the repressed, and so we get the family's life represented by these tasteless trinkets: "rocks painted to look like trolls," bronze pigs, goats and dinosaurs (a definite wtf-begging assortment), and a two-year-old framed photo of their daughter. This is what passes, I think we're supposed to understand, for art in this family.

Mark McGurl, in discussing this "lower middle class modernism" in The Program Era, quotes Robert Rebein as saying that "Carver's 'true and lasting legacy' was in teaching writers of his generation 'how to be a serious artist without taking art as his subject [matter].'" (275-6 of Program Era). McGurl finds this persuasive and so do I, but I think some more can be done with it. The place of art, its appreciation, and its practice in "serious" fiction is so well-established that this Carverian project cannot merely turn away from art as the subject of serious fiction but must find a surrogate for it, and the search for that surrogate is what we see going on in work like Campbell's. This is the force behind McGurl's use of the term "modernism" to name this genre: it is far more continuous with the fiction which did place art at its center than that fiction which placed "life" at its center.

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