By Stephen Kuusisto
There’s a dialogue in the most recent Sunday New York Times Book Review entitled “Whatever Happened to the Novel of Ideas?” which, by its very title, inveigles readers to believe, even before setting out on the stertorous voyage, that good old smarty pants novels have been abducted, or killed off. The headline reminds me of Life magazine’s famous hatchet job on Jackson Pollock: “Is This the Greatest Living American Painter?”—block letters inviting the credulous to skip incredulity (how can a dripper make art?) and jump straight to offense. “Once there, we’ve got them!”
Per the assignment, writers Pankaj Mishra and Benjamin Moser both explain how the suffocation occurred. Mishra gathers the usual suspects—American prosperity following WW II, the middlebrow culture’s precipitous decline, and a contemporary American penchant for living suspended between fear and reaction, what Daniel Golman might call “neurological hijacking”.
Moser suggests that the genre may not exist at all (elegance while begging the question perhaps) arguing that novels of ideas must be composed from both poetry and philosophy, a demand so entirely impossible one should best give up now. Or to put this another way, real life is implausible and can scarcely be believed when its made to appear real, and worse yet, philosophical ideas expressed by a novel’s characters decline to mere ideological blather.
Missing, of course, is that the novel of ideas still exists and we still read them. Writers write them. Gail Godwin’s work comes to mind. May we mention Martin Amis? How about Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” or Norman Rush’s “Mating”? Barbara Kingsolver? Toni Morrison? Richard Powers? Shirley Hazzard? William T. Vollman? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? Nadine Gordimer?
One can build a long list.
What Mishra and Moser are arguing is hard to reckon. We grant the decline of the novel as a dominant cultural force (a deterioration that properly reflects the novel’s origin as the art form of empire) but I can’t buy their proposition that the “thing” is too difficult to be achieved, or that it’s been killed off by small “w” western prosperity and televised fear. The arguments as they’ve marshaled them are sophomoric and curiously introverted and are not in any sense “reality based” as they say in the vernacular. There are vitalities and ideas aplenty in contemporary fiction.
Pollock was a pretty good painter, too.