Friday, September 28, 2007

Brooklyn Books of Wonder

There's a new essay by Melvin Jules Bukiet in The American Scholar examining a wave of what Bukiet calls "Brooklyn Books of Wonder." For him, these are books that while with few exceptions more well-written than the majority of "genre fiction," don't do anything with life except embrace its potential healing qualities.

All right, I'm simplifying there, but his problem is essentially this: these writers (Eggers, Sebold, Kidd, Chabon, Foer, Kraus) propogate a world in which "History and tragedy foster personal growth" through novels that leave readers with a "surge of sentimental warmth," allowing them to "pretend that they, too, have confronted evil or sorrow and made it through to the other side."

Worse, he says, is the notion that humans can find "growth" in tragedy. "The only thing suffering teaches us," Bukiet writes, "is that we are capable of suffering."


Except not right.

At least, not in the manner in which he writes it. Not in the way that he reaches for some sort of "Reader's Manifesto" for 2007 and succeeds only in flaccid trashing of The Secret Life of Bees and The Lovely Bones. Easy targets: novels that fail in their artistic and narrative ambitions. Novels that pretend to reveal reality but succeed only in affirming shallow fantasy.

But he tries to equate them with the likes of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, with Everything Is Illuminated. That's a problem.

And, like Myers in "A Reader's Manifesto," Burkiet strips his salient passages of every conceivable context they might have in order to paint their writers as shallow, egocentric, naive and their novels as wide-eyed, innocent pablum.

But it doesn't work.

Nor does forcing Mark Helprin into that company, ostensibly for his conservative, nostalgic politics.

Nor does opening with allusions to The Brothers Karamazov. He does this, I guess, to demonstrate the difference between what he might consider the potentially shattering realism of TBK and something like AHWOSG. None of that "depressing Father Zosima's corpse smells stuff" in these new novels, Burkiet writes. But, of course, the corruption of Zosima's corpse is what forces Alyosha out of the monastery, into confrontation with his family and with himself, into confrontation with further pain, and, of course, to redemption. To redemption. To something that he learns through suffering.

Heck, when does Dostoyevsky not argue the redemptive possibilities of suffering?

Why else is Dmitri forced through a ridiculous trial, through an unjust jail sentence, if not to present the possibility that he "find growth in tragedy." What to make of Alyosha's insistence that a single good memory from childhood might be enough to "save" the basest of men? What to make of Dostoyevsky's portrayal of Ivan, the only one of the legitimate brothers to insist, constantly, on seeing reality for what it is, seeing suffering for what it is -- merely reality and merely suffering?

What to make of Helprin's insistence in A Soldier of the Great War that suffering is inexplicable, widespread, and random and that the "value" of any life, in the end, is based not on whether or not a person has "grown" (again, to use Burkiet's language) through tragedy but whether or not a person has embraced a life at all, whether or not a person has lived, loved, and remembered?

There's an intriguing thought or two in the essay (as there were in "A Reader's Manifesto"), and there are some salient comments on Jonathan Lethem and one or two insights into Chabon's work, but, like Myers' piece, it ultimately sustains neither its thesis nor the disparity between its chosen "evidence" and what is left unconsidered or unsaid.

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