Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Novel is a Novel ain't a Novel

When is a novel not a novel? There must be a reason, after all, why booksites feature mature adults boasting of their preference for YA books over regular new novels. And oh yes, it does have something to do with the beaming and boisterous self-conscious "youthfulness" of us all in this shiny dreary new millennium. And yes, it also has to do with the fact that Education Factories produce public schoolteachers who think YA comprises a "literature" all on its own (a literature of the oppressed!!). And yes, damnit, it has a little to do with the sneaky way YA rocks . . . But this is not my point.

No, the question of when a novel is not a novel has been forcibly sprung upon me by my late reading of Iris Murdoch. The acclaimed Platonistic philosopher and notorious bisexual gaddabout was a dim presence in the back of my mind thanks to various "New Yorker" profiles before she sank into Alzheimer's and death, as subsequently "documented" in "Iris" which, I say thankfully, I have not seen.
But lately I turned to the fiction aisles at my local public library-- a zone I generally miss altogether, too absorbed in checking out the entire philosophy shelf again or trolling about for forgotten tell-all memoirs of the Carter administration. But lo and behold, we are generously stocked with Murdoch, damn near the entire canon, and I was stunned into indecision by the extent of the riches on display. I finally settled on "An Accidental Man".

The bookjacket publisher's copy asserts this to be "iris Murdoch's longest and most brilliant novel, very serious, very funny." Okay, we know we're in trouble, right? Already the experienced reader, otherwise oblivious of Murdoch's work, will say "Ah, yes, it must be Murdoch's "It"-- the once-great novelist bites off too much and unloads a great amorphous blob of a novel, pretentious and straining for 'significance'--right?" After all, it takes place during Vietnam-- or was that simply "the war" because, I'll be damned, I'm not sure that the book ever mentions it by name.

Now, I don't know how Harold Bloom rates "An Accidental Man", though he rates Murdoch rather highly, albeit as an author of "romances", in the Shakespearean/Hawthornian/cyberpunk sense of the word. And yes, suffice it to say we're not exactly in the realm of normative realism. But "An Accidental Man" is a hell of a book, full of matter to chew on, bulging with memorable dialogue, shifty situations, characters both endearing and hateful. Thank god I didn't actually READ it though!!

--Now, if I HAD read it through I don't think I could tell you if Vietnam were in fact ever referenced by name. I'm that kind of reader, for all my word-for-word religiosity, but also, it's that kind of book. Murdoch is seductive, and as choking as a bog. Like many a library book opened at 1:00am, "An Accidental Man" became a skim-through, a four-hour breakdown scannathon, eagerly surfing straight ahead to see just what fates would unfold for these strange people. And with all the guilt, I thought to myself too, "Oh thank god I didn't give three weeks to this book!!! It would have KILLED me!!!"
Because if Francesca Lia Block doesn't exactly tighten the rusty screws on her leaky plots, Murdoch doesn't either. And if Block laddles whimsy on top of myth, Murdoch laddles myth on top of whimsy which, she being a great thinker and probably a better writer, means that her books are still more imposing creations, but they don't register so well as "books". For readers like me, for whom a novel means Jane Austen or Choderlos de Laclos, reading a volume by Roth, Bellow or Murdoch can feel like an act of mental masturbation, like reading Elizabeth Wurtzel's memoirs or Thomas Friedman. Who are these people? What are these lives? And what are these arbitrary collections of authorially-imposed happenstance, all as inscrutable and thoroughly acausal-sounding as the dumping I received from my solipsistic Albertine who reads her Proust upstairs?

Lest I seem reactionary, let's recall the mistress of compact witty surreality, Muriel Spark. In her fiction, the Author, the Characters, and God all seem to be schemily competing for precedence as the authors of all-encompassing plots. Cruel chance-- or is that the "providence" of her detached deity?-- can govern all. Yet her characters register on the mind's eye with dazzling sharpness of outline, even those who are mysterious or unknowable. Nicholas in "The Girls of Slender Means" and Sandy in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" are especially mysterious in their 'state of grace'-- if they're hard to fathom within their novels' main stories, it's even more of a challenge to grasp how they've become the people they became-- but we know that we're grasping something real, tangibly in our hands, when we consider them. But what do you hold when you scrutinize Matthew or Dorina? These characters may have their rewards, but their arbitrary construction brings this reader at least a lot of pain-- in part, the suffering born of empty calories. Their bizarre antics set my teeth on edge even as I'm forced to chew down on them-- and my digestion! . . . --Of course there are other sorts of rewards, entirely less ambivalent:

She had loved him always, thought of him always. Love is not time's fool and rejects notions of exact measurement. How many hours per day of thinking about the beloved counts as being in love? Such ideas are absurd. Love laughs at locksmiths and also at Locke. Love belongs to the ideal.
(pg 388)

But when I think of Mitzi and Mavis (oh, bother these names!) the solipsistic sisters of Block and Cohn and their acolytes seem less offensive. Are Violet and Claire, Echo and Barbie less real than these fanciful ideograms? Is effusive self-pity more charming in the thrice-married and middle-aged than in chain-smoking teenage outcasts? Oh forbid! Thus does Block advance one step closer to canonicity.