It was twenty years ago this fall that I embarked on my most spectacular failure.
I’d finished my dissertation, got a publication contract for it, and was casting about for my next project. I decided to write a close ethnography of one young man I’d met as a high school senior, who had continued correspondence with me as a young-twenties adult. He was making absolutely no headway toward what we might think of as adult life, and I wanted to learn how he was configuring that project. So I moved in with him and his two housemates for a month.
The House of Ennui, which will never be published*, is the record of that month, and of my own descent into despair over the adulthood I’d created for myself. Pete’s life was nothing but inertia, a block of resistance moved only temporarily and resentfully by any outside force. There was no word in his language for “toward.”
One of the books Pete shared with me that month was Michael Chabon’s debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Here’s part of what I wrote about it.
The basic logic of fiction is that a protagonist—a character having certain strengths, weaknesses and motivations—is set into a situation in which those strengths are tested, those weaknesses emerge, and those motivations are fulfilled or denied or come into question.The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the first novel by Pulitzer-winning Michael Chabon, is a fascinating experiment in fiction because it omits one of those three elements: its protagonist has no motivation whatsoever. As such, it is by far the most annoying well-written book I’ve ever read, Art Bechstein the least interesting leading character.
Nothing that had ever happened to Art happened because he had desired or pursued it for himself. As he’s finishing his last college paper—late—in the school library in June, he sees a pretty girl, gets chatted up by a pretty boy, and proceeds to be dragged around all summer through an endless series of social circles, near-events, and pointless drama. The pretty young woman and the pretty young man both pursue him, because he is beautiful and because his blankness offers them the reflections of themselves they both desire. His pursuers dislike and distrust one another, and Art cannot choose between them, and so offers himself to whichever is nearest or speaks with more persuasion at the moment. He loves neither, because “to love” is a verb, and Art does not do verbs. Art is far too distant and disengaged for any effort beyond observation and reportage.
The current book on the table, Ling Ma’s Severance, falls exactly into this same camp. Candace cannot bring herself to do anything, or to want anything. She eats, but takes no pleasure in it. She has sex, but takes no pleasure in it. She has #friends, but takes no pleasure in them. The other people in the story are props, flat and unsophisticated, not because the author is careless but because Candace is.
And it all makes me wonder. I wonder why such talented and driven people are writing about such motivationless characters. Michael Chabon went to college at Pitt and got his MFA from UC Irvine, a program with a 2% acceptance rate. Ling Ma went to college at U.Chicago and did her MFA at Cornell, a program with a 1.6% acceptance rate. Jia Tolentino, who wrote of Severance that it was “the best work of fiction I’ve read yet about the millennial condition,” was an undergraduate Jefferson Scholar at Virginia and did her MFA at Michigan, a program with a 1.5% acceptance rate. These are not people who sit around and let the world happen to them.
The identifying field mark of literary fiction is suffering. No one’s aspirations are satisfied for even a moment before being dashed in even more baroque ways. Even imagining a happy ending is seen as naïve and implausible, perhaps even irresponsible. No possible indignity can be spared; no misfortune can be too unlikely; no character can be respected strongly enough to have her best intentions fulfilled for more than fleeting moments before the next humiliation. As perhaps befits our zeitgeist, too many of the most celebrated literary novels of recent years have portrayed life as tormented, degraded and diminished. “Realism” means unrelenting layers of misery. We’re far more likely to suspend disbelief about vampires, dragons and zombies than we are about regular people living regular lives with some degree of nobility and hope.
This body of anhedonic, anti-aspirational literature does harm, I think. Like Ma’s imagined Shen Fever, its spores are everywhere, slowing us to nostalgia for when things were all okay, leaving us less able to take action in the face of the troubles around us. “Well, we’re all fucked” is nothing but a declaration of inertia, a raising of the white flag so that maybe we won’t be hurt even further. We are oversupplied with irony and mockery, are left anemic by our deficiency of hope.
*That book, in its draft form, did a lot of harm to the people I wrote about. As Joan Didion said, “A writer is always selling someone out.” Now they’re all twenty years older, and don’t deserve to undergo public scrutiny of their pasts. And Pete isn’t really his name.