I don’t read lots of books; too busy with work and being a Dad/husband/homeowner/citizen. But there’s always one on the go, and so they add up. Some are airplane-ride fluff, but not all. As a consequence I think about what it means for a novel to be “modern”; in particular because some recent highly-touted works have irritated me on account of their overly-self-conscious modernity. Among other things, it’s obvious that the term “modern” is strongly unrelated to the year of publication.
Is Old Good? · No. Just because I get mad at certain authors trying too hard to be modern doesn’t mean that I’m a worshiper at the temple of the classics. Famous authors from Back Then whose work I consider to be unreadable or just mostly bad include Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, and D.H. Lawrence; I so pity the hapless undergrads upon whom these naked emperors are regularly inflicted.
On the other hand, old doesn’t mean bad; for example, the greatest writer ever of books which are both suitable for a plane ride and also more-than-disposable would be Anthony Trollope. If you don’t know about him, you’re in for many pleasant surprises, the man was prolific and even his weaker offerings are pretty strong. Good starting points might be Barchester Towers, The Three Clerks, or Phineas Finn. Hey, many Trollopes enjoy an excellent price point at the e-book vendor’s: $0.00.
Let’s dive into some books, modern and less so. Even though this is a blog, I’ll flip the running order and consider them in ascending order of how “modern” they feel.
Classic Gun Opera · Neal Stephenson’s latest novel REAMDE is by far the most old-fashioned of the books here. Yep, the story has MMPORGs and Chinese gold-farmers and Islamist bombers and Russion mafiosi and American wingnuts. But so what? Here, the heroes are heroes and the villains are villains and the climaxes are set-pieces and mostly the bad guys get killed and the good guys don’t. There is derring-do aplenty in the woods and on the high seas.
I loved it. An early Stephenson fan, I’d sort of run out of patience with his recent big historical multivolume pounders. In this one he apparently set out to show the audience a good time while having some fun himself, and it comes off perfectly. I suspect it may not wear well in future decades and centuries, but who cares?
Young Adult Lit · I refer of course to The Hunger Games, which I picked up because my 12-year-old was reading it; along, apparently, with a third of the world’s English-speaking population.
It’s not particularly subtle, but it’s not sentimental at all, and I don’t regret having read it. It’s not as well-written as REAMDE but it’s a lot more modern: Good people die, everyone is damaged, the plot goes highly nonlinear in places, and remains unpredictable throughout. There’s no claim that The Girl and Her Boy are going to live happily ever after; they have a chance, that’s all. And one potential romantic lead turns out to have a prediliction for war crimes.
The first movie was pretty good, too. Also, no vampires!
Now, let’s get modern.
The writing is beautiful, I’ll give it that, but there’s no story to the story. This guy walks around New York and at some point in the middle takes a trip to Brussels. It’s not fair to say nothing happens because some things do, but they don’t matter, particularly. There’s some meaningless one-night-stand sex and some meaningless street-mugging violence; are we supposed to take away a “Nothing matters” message?
Cole recently wrote the thought-provoking The White Savior Industrial Complex in The Atlantic and I recommend it. Quoting from that: “I am a novelist. I traffic in subtleties, and my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn't have a point.” Well, maybe, but it should damn well have a story.
What’s particularly irritating is that Cole just oozes talent; there are lots of sentences here that you’d like to hang in a gallery so that people could admire them. Also, he’s taking a serious run at Twitter as an art form: Don’t laugh; try following @tejucole for a while.
I see in that tweetstream that he’s writing a book about Nigeria and I’ll probably buy it just based on the hints and murmurs in this awful, awful novel.
The book is easily summarized: There’s an unusual geological formation in the US southwest with three pinnacles and a cave underneath. Over the centuries a lot of really weird shit happens in the neighborhood, it’s easy to believe that occasional supernatural forces are at work.
The cast of characters is brilliant; there are many people here that you just have to care about; you find yourself on the edge of your seat hoping that they’ll find their way out of their troubles. Shouldn’t that matter more than anything when we come to judge storytelling?
Its structure is highly nonlinear in the modern style; lots of apparently-unrelated storylines cross-cutting and catching each others’ reflections in a way that’s not pushed in your face but can’t fail to echo round your head.
Except for the ending. Kunzru sets up this wildly compelling situation involving kidnapping, corruption, mental health, stressed-out parents, and deep dark mystery. Then he drags us back again into the southwestern desert, and drops us there with no hint of resolution and no apology. Yeah, I admire his skill in making me care about what happens to his protagonists Jaz and Lisa and Raj, but I totally resent his refusal to tell me. I guess he agrees with Cole about not having a point. Or an ending.
Sidebar: Are Endings Required? · I’m a little uneasy here, because I’ve admired lots of books in which not much happens and which don’t come with a neatly packaged ending. Probably my favorite novel ever is Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and yup, nothing “major” happens, in the sense of nothing that might not happen any other day in Ivan’s life, in which most days are like most others. But the small happenings matter intensely, and the story seizes your heart.
I guess I should also mention Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, an insanely long, difficult, and obscene book in which at the end, no actual plot is developed and there’s no suggestion that anyone will live happily ever after with anyone else. But it’s influenced me as much as anything I’ve ever read; perhaps because I’ve read it five or six times. By the way, if you want to give this one a try, it’ll have to be on paper; it totally wouldn’t work on any current e-reader because it has extreme typographical demands.
At the end of the day it’s obvious: it isn’t whether the book is “modern” or not, it’s whether it’s good or not. While we’re on the subject of being both modern and good...
Exquisite Agony · I’m talking about Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thiene, which appeared in these pages before I’d even read it. In that space I mentioned that the book has a Tumblr and is by a Vancouver native.
I love this book, and it couldn’t possibly have been written at any other point in history; how’s that for being modern?
Let me open with a question: What is unique, among all the centuries, about the Twentieth? With just a little thought, it’s obvious: The century I grew up in was the century of genocide. Concider the Holocaust, Stalin’s famines, the Khmer Rouge, the slaughter of the Rwandan Tutsis. If I hope for one thing for this tired old planet, it’s that we leave that bad habit behind in that century. Thus, the most important books anyone can write about the Nineteen Hundreds are the ones that try to get inside these tragedies; explain the inexplicable.
This is one of those; the story is of some people who lived through Cambodia’s “Year Zero”; what it did to them and what it left them looking for. It’s also about love and parenthood and memory and science and being a foreigner and how people experience the unimaginable and survive it, or not.
It’s graceful and puts the techniques of contemporary writing to good use but always and only as tools to support the task at hand, of storytelling and teaching. Plus it has a not-entirely-unhappy ending.
By the way, if you, like me, find the Cambodian tragedy compelling, I can recommend the obscure and long-forgotten Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow, which combines history and a short-story collection. It’s another that would work only on paper because Kindles and their ilk can only fit one stream of narrative on their virtual pages.
And in the related-books category, Ms Thien quotes from The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh, which is clearly the best book about the Vietnam War written by a North Vietnamese foot-soldier; if only because it’s the only such book, as far as I know. But it’s good.
Fiction · For a few years there I’d stopped reading it; I’m glad I’ve come back. It’s a high-risk endeavor, particularly if you try to stay current. But high-reward as well, it seems.