Tag Archives: contemporary literature

In the Light of What We Know

10 Jul

 “If metaphors increase our understanding, they do so only because they can take us back to a familiar vantage, which is to say that a metaphor cannot bring anything nearer. Everything new is on the rim of our view, in the darkness below the horizon, so that nothing new is visible but in the light of what we know.”

I don’t always jump on the bandwagon of the hot novel du jour, but one that got favorable reviews across the board this summer did grab my attention: In the Light of What We Know, a debut novel by Bangladeshi writer Zia Haider Rahman. It’s a novel that stems from that desire for metaphor detailed in that quote above—a desire “to analogize, to link one thing with another, and to make whole the disparate,” in the words of Zafar, the character who is the novel’s primary subject.

It’s a novel that belongs in the same category as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: it’s a big social novel, trying to talk about the Way We Live Now. With an international flavor thrown in, it can almost seem like the most self-consciously zeitgeisty novel ever. (It’s a novel about the U.S. in Afghanistan! About investment banking and the financial crisis! About the collision of Western and traditional values! Life in the British aristocracy! Math and metaphors and through it all the meaning of writing and therefore of life! And on and on.) But then, of course, you realize that all of this is Zia Haider Rahman’s life, and that he’s just writing in the light of what he knows. Of course, that alone isn’t enough to dismiss the charges of pretension, and every now and then, the quotes at the start of each chapter grow to be a bit much, or the characters’ intellectual asides don’t quite ring true, even given the depth of knowledge they display. It’s clearly a debut novel, carried by the same instinct I first had when I started writing: the author believes he has to pack in as many of his thoughts as humanly possible, lest any one little drop of his brilliance be left unwritten.

The good news is that Rahman is rather brilliant, and knows this. One exceedingly self-conscious pre-chapter quote by Italo Calvino even lays it out: “overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature.” Indeed, why shouldn’t he go for it? Literature is far more forgiving of possible overreach than the real world, and if the end result gets us somewhere, who cares about the sniping of the cynic from on high? This is a novel as personal exploration, the lines between reality and embellishment obscured; one man’s effort to turn everything he’s known into a somehow coherent narrative arc. To the extent that anyone can meet that near-impossible goal, it does well, and the bevy of glowing reviews shows how sincere Rahman can be, even though his life story can seem so inaccessible.

The tagline for James Wood’s New Yorker review in the print edition called it “a novel of the global elite,” which is true in the sense that pretty much every character is in a position of power, and perhaps all save Zafar from privileged backgrounds as well. But Zafar’s inability to ever find comfort in that elite is the novel’s driving force, the source of his eternal foreignness. Even as he becomes fully conversant in its language and customs and courts a woman who is its ideal, alienation and disgust always simmers beneath. Zafar is a tortured genius, forever someone from somewhere else, and he can share this story only to the unnamed narrator; despite Zafar’s skepticism of bonds built around mere familiarity and his rejection of free will, he is, ironically, pulled toward another man from the subcontinent.

The bond goes a bit deeper than that, of course: Zafar and the unnamed narrator share a brotherhood born of curiosity, an identity as Oxford men and bankers, and a passion for math. In the cleanness of numbers, Zafar can usually escape the ambiguity that overwhelms his daily life, but even there, it doesn’t quite work, with Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem repeated throughout: within any system, there are claims that are true that cannot be proven true.

This is a powerful theme in the novel, with several unique takes on that old Socrates maxim that the wisest man knows that he knows nothing, with greater knowledge only opening up a realization of one’s ignorance. For all of Zafar’s brilliance, he only becomes more and more alienated, and the narrator, while wise not to go quite as far as Zafar in his jadedness, feels many of the same burdens of knowledge. Consider this brilliant turn of phrase: “The faith in having the measure of others really becomes unstuck when you begin to consider how many you’d acknowledge as having the measure of you.” The revelations are often unsettling, and it is not hard to see how circumstances could drive men like these, seemingly so privileged and powerful, into the depths of despair.

For such an erudite novel, it settles into a good pace after some early meanders, and the prose manages to reach a high caliber without being showy. The chapter entitled “The Gospel of St. Thomas” in particular grips the reader, as the details of Zafar’s courtship with Emily Hampton-Wyvern finally come into the light. I especially applaud the decision to eschew quotation marks, a technique that turns dialogue into a sort of meditative trance: the speaker is de-emphasized, and things flow together into a deeper reflection, at times even making us wonder what was really said, and what was merely thought, perhaps in retrospect. (At one point, there’s an explicit mention of this; it also raises the question of how much our narrator—and through him, Rahman—is massaging his depiction of Zafar for his own purposes.) It’s not a tool to be used frequently, but for the tone of Rahman’s novel, it’s ideal.

Readers will likely either love or hate In the Light of What We Know, depending on what they themselves know: how much can we relate to Zafar, a man with such an extraordinary biography? Thankfully, there are a number of ways to approach the enigmatic Bangladeshi raised in Britain, a child of both “a corner of a corner of the world” and Oxford: through lenses of class and race and culture, from intellectual affinity to political or philosophical curiosity. (There was a bit of Zafar leeching into my recent post on the U.S.’s role on the international stage.) Slowly, surely, the bond between the two protagonists emerges as the theme, though its development comes at the expense of the novel’s paper-thin women. For good or ill, they are in a world of their own, along with their author.

There was a time when I probably would have called this the best thing I’ve ever read. The novel’s reach is awesome, that of a social novel raised to the highbrow level; I admire its scope, and a number of lines have been written down to keep. I found some avenues to relate, at times a bit more than I’d like to admit. But now, safely emerged from my phase of overly anxious, morose soul-searching, I can’t help but find it incomplete: telling that narrative about oneself is great, but it’s only a start. To that end, I’ll be very curious to see what Rahman writes next. Now that he’s shed some light on his past, where does he go from here, now that all the self-consciousness is out of the way?

Jonathan Franzen, Fiction, and a Novel of My Own

23 Sep

Jonathan Franzen fascinates me more than any other contemporary author, though at first glance, it’s hard to figure out why. He’s not necessarily my favorite writer, nor the most talented one out there, and not even the most insightful. His dour lifestyle doesn’t really sound all that pleasant to me, and when I had the chance to attend a book reading of his at the National Cathedral, he came across as, well, weird.

I suppose that leaves us with his fame, which I’ll admit is a bit captivating to anyone with any pretension of writing fiction. This man is guilty of making me think novel-writing can still be relevant, and sure enough, there are countless glimmers of insight in The Corrections and Freedom that really speak to “the way we live now,” that vogue phrase used to describe great contemporary literary fiction. I think those sorts of work are valuable, and while I suppose my writing makes some effort to do that, I also find it limiting in some ways. What good is a novel about “the way we live now” in forty years, other than as a historical artifact? Granted, it’s not a crisp division; no story can really be removed from the time and place it’s set in, and we can learn far broader things from even the most myopic case studies. But with Franzen there’s a serious risk of drowning in the details of the present, and it’s hard to know how relevant some of his insights might be down the line. He is so relentless in his attempts to capture the moment with his ironic, self-conscious detachment that it can grow tiresome, even to people like me, who have a certain appreciation for that sort of thing.

Franzen’s power, however, emerges in his ability to bury himself in the misery modern life for ages and ages, and then come up with a brilliant ending that transcends all the previous grumbling. He’ll go on and on making you feel utterly depressed about the state of the world, and then he’ll drop something on you at the end that makes everything seem good again. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. I really liked the premise of The Corrections, and still have an autographed copy sitting on my bookshelf, but about midway through it I was distracted by something else, and it remains unfinished. If and when I ever get through it, I suspect I’ll love the ending, but I have to be willing to go through the beginning bits again, and Franzen spends so much time making his characters so profoundly flawed that one almost has to feel a personal connection to them to see them through. I found enough of that in Freedom that I sped through it, and felt rewarded afterwards. Even so, though I was moved by the ending when I read it, later reflection led to some doubt about the sincerity of the final transcendent moment. (This incisive, if overly harsh, Ruth Franklin review explains why better than I can.)

Sometimes, I think he’s actually more effective as an essayist. My favorite thing he’s written was “Farther Away,” a New Yorker essay on human solitude (which, like every other New Yorker piece I want to link to, is not online). His manifesto on literature in the digital age, “Perchance to Dream,” is also masterful, though I have my quibbles with parts of it. And now, in The Guardian, he offers an excerpt of an upcoming work of non-fiction that modestly sets out to explain “What’s Wrong with the Modern World.” It follows the classic Franzen formula to a tee. It diagnoses many Bad Things, uses examples of varying strength to make that point, and employs a caustic wit; it all makes Franzen seem rather misanthropic, and by the end he’s snuffed out most of your hope for the future of our species. (This is especially true if you like to write and are a mediocre self-promoter.) But then he turns around and points out how the apocalypse won’t be so bad after all, and gives you a chance to find some hope for humanity again.

Franzen’s escapes from his own despair make so many readers want to believe in him as a voice of redemption. We all want to think we can do that, too. He has so much potential. And yet, for me at least, he doesn’t quite get there. He is too consumed by his misery, his fleeting glimmers too brief, and too constrained by his times. Much of my inspiration for writing fiction comes not from Franzen himself, but from the critiques of him: I want to close the deal.

So, this seems like as good a time as any to make an announcement: I have a novel draft that I am, finally, more-or-less ready to share.

I’m an unpublished 23-year-old kid who’s just finished his first draft, and who hasn’t taken a formal English class since high school. I don’t pretend to be some sort of new-and-improved Jonathan Franzen. No, quite the contrary: my stumbling efforts owe a debt to him. Art, in my mind, is not a work of genius that emerges from a vacuum. It is wedded to literature that has come before it, forever in dialogue with the past. Hence my epigraph for the novel:

Man is…essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

—Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

I’ve named the thing The School of Athens, and there is a lot going on here. The basic premise—kids growing up in a small northern Minnesota town—has some things in common with my life, though I’m also pleased to say that is far less autobiographical that some of my previous attempts at fiction. None of the characters are really based on anyone from my childhood, and my fictional town of Arcadia certainly has its differences from the east side of Duluth. As the epigraph suggests, it asks what it is we’re supposed to do with our lives, and explores the tension between individual ambitions and commitments to a community. It is a coming of age story, and there is a healthy dose of teenage angst. There are clashing cultures, love stories, and of course there is some hockey. As the title suggests, there is some Greek philosophy allegory, though I hope that readers can enjoy the novel without knowing much about Plato or Aristotle.

As in many “contemporary literary fiction” novels, it confronts some problems of the modern world: the emptying of the American countryside, broken families, moral uncertainty, and an atomized society. There is plenty of skepticism about sentimental or easy solutions, and some healthy mockery of the notion that some characters have anything in common with the Greek heroes who are their namesakes or inspiration. On the other hand, though, it tries to avoid some of the pathologies that afflict Franzen and other modern novelists. While it seems to be happening sometime in the present, I never name a year. There is little to no name-dropping of brands or current events; instead, it focuses on conversation and direct contact, and the timeless traits of human interaction that haven’t changed all that much since Alexander the Great conquered the known world. All the characters are flawed, but they all have some redeeming traits as well, and contra Franzen, you won’t have to wait until the end to see glimpses of that—not that the ending will necessarily hit that note, though. You’ll have to read the thing to find out.

Still, I’m not going to measure this novel’s value by its place within some grandiose literary debate over postmodernism or literary theory or what “great” novels should talk about. (In fact, my ambivalence over that sort of theorizing is a secondary reason why I chose not to attend an MFA program that accepted me.) I’d love for this thing to succeed, but I have no illusions over making a living off of writing novels in this day in age. I just hope I’ve told an interesting story that people can relate to.

So, drop me a line if you want to read it: I need all the criticism I can get. That’s the only way it’ll get better, because I know it’s far from complete. Thanks for reading.