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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
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Past Valve Book Events

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The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Like Explorers Who Have Returned From Some Distant Land

Posted by Sean McCann on 06/08/05 at 11:53 AM

Lots and lots of doubtful claims and many a quick and dirty generalization in this piece.  But the big idea is right on.  It’s been sometime since contemporary American lit spoke forcefully about class. 

To a considerable extent novels these days take place in a kind of all-purpose middle-class America, in neighborhoods that could be almost anyplace, and where the burdens are more psychic than economic, with people too busy tending to their faltering relationships to pay much attention to keeping up with the neighbors. . . . Nowadays when a writer like Richard Russo, Russell Banks or Richard Price comes along, with an old-fashioned, almost Dickensian vision of life among the poor and working classes, it’s a little startling; they seem like explorers who have returned from some distant land.


Comments

Rick Moody, anyone?  I think it’s unfair to assume that a novel has to address class to “address class.” I think class structures much of the work of Denis Johnson, for example, or Chuck Palahniuk...not that I’d consider Palahniuk a major American novelist, mind you, but his popularity is due to his appeal to one class-consciousness and his critique of another.  Sure, these novels don’t address class the way Mike Gold’s poetry addressed class, but it’s there, and it’s salient, nonetheless.  I should also point out that the dearth of classic “class novels” could be related to the birth of the modern MFA program.  David Foster Wallace mentioned somewhere that unless an MFA program had the luxury to dole out scholarships to the majority of the writers entering the program, the “creative” industries would be overrun by “all-purpose, middle-class” American kids...and I know of no group as blind to issues of class (and its concomitant privileges) as middle/upper-middle-class Americans.  (Race may play a factor, but in my experience, the unflappable belief in the non-existence of class crosses racial lines.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/08/05 at 04:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott’s correct, I think, about the importance of Denis Johnson here, though he was himself an Iowa MFA (and probably, as far I know, “all-purpose, middle-class.")

My impression is that Johnson is underappreciated; has there been a critical essay on him in one of the professional journals?

By Jonathan on 06/08/05 at 08:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But isn’t a lot being said about class these days?  What about the reality TV show hosted by Paris Hilton’s mother on how to become a Hilton yourself?  What about the Michael Barone essay here http://www.realclearpolitics.com/Commentary/com-3_21_05_MB.html on the trustfund left?  There are lots of poot-but-honest hardworking folks, but the artsy types—who identify with the trustfunder left—basically can’t abide them, so “novels” in that sense don’t portray them.

By John Bruce on 06/08/05 at 08:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m lamely going to repeat something that I posted in a thread just a few days ago: maybe the loss of interest in early 20th century realistic novels is part of our inability to still imagine ourselves in a class relationship to the characters.  James Branch Cabell thought that people read them so that they could have a comfortable feeling of class superiority to the struggling poor people depicted, and that all that reportorial realism was about the middle class getting to feel condescendingly sympathetic.  (Not that he ever used the word “class”, but that’s how I’d read him.) Now the books seem boring because we can no longer get that charge out of them; their denizens have become people out of another country.

By on 06/08/05 at 08:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, when I was considering writing about Johnson’s Already Dead: A California Gothic, I ran across a couple of articles on Jesus’s Son and a couple of mentions of Angels, but that was three or four years ago. 

For what it’s worth, my comment about MFAs wasn’t meant as an indictment, nor do I think Wallace--himself an MFA and currently the Disney Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona--intended it as such.  (Quick fanboy aside: when I googled “pomona david foster wallace” to find the link above, the second one that turned up linked to his ratings on ratemyprofessor.com.  I think I’ve found a new hobby.  Do you know what I’ve already learned?  One of our esteemed Valve authors looks “like a hot version of Calvin’s dad from Calvin and Hobbes.")

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/08/05 at 09:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whit Stillman published a clever and funny novel a few years ago, on the subject of (what else) white eastern inner-urban upper-upper middle class group identitiy and privilege.  To diagnose such a small segment so accurately in my opinion counts as demonstrating a very sharp understanding of American class and caste workings in general.

The book is called “The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards.”

By Laura on 06/09/05 at 12:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh and I really dig RateMyProfessors.  You all have my undying respect for being able to cope with teaching in a system where something like that exists.

By Laura on 06/09/05 at 12:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To follow on Rich’s comments, I think a certain mode of class discourse has disappeared from the American novel, and it’s the language associated with naturalism, in which one’s fate is determined by uncontrollable inner (instinct and biology) and outer (class and gender) forces.

Contrast that discourse with, say, DeLillo in *Underworld*.  Here we have a vast social novel in the realist tradition.  But it’s more about a certain “escape” from class and ethnicity into deracination, history-less-ness, culture-less-ness.  Note how the novel becomes more “colorful” and concrete as we move backward in time toward the protagonist’s teenage years in a NYC neighborhood.

And it’s not just DeLillo.  Colson Whitehead’s *John Henry Days* charts a similar process from ethnic, regional, and class particularity to a deracinated, technological, “global” position.  We see similar similar dynamics in Paul Auster’s recent novels.  (I’m currently working on an article on this topic—the transformation of narratives of ethnic assimilation into a narrative of class deracination). 

Current black writers, like Percival Everett and Paul Beatty and Danzy Senna and Edward P. Jones and Nathaniel Mackey, all deploy complex class analysis, as do contemporary “white” novelists such as Jay Cantor, Barry Gifford (one of our few lumpen novelists), Sheri Holman, Joanna Scott, and so on. 

So I think our best novelists have a healthy and complex attitude toward class.  Still, only the English have a Kathy-Acker of class warfare in Stewart Home.

By on 06/09/05 at 01:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Many thanks to all for the reading suggestions.  I’ll be glad to put the whole idea under advisement, but for now I remain partial to the views of Rich and Luther.  LB, “the transformation of narratives of ethnic assimilation into a narrative of class deracination” points toward exactly what I mean.  To the extent, DeLillo for one sees class as ethnicity, he doesn’t see what naturalism, but not necessarily only naturalism, considered: inequality, exploitation, cruel necessity. In fact, what you describe actually fits McGrath’s characterization quite well: “novels these days take place in a kind of all-purpose middle-class America, in neighborhoods that could be almost anyplace, and where the burdens are more psychic than economic.” That seems to me less “a healthy and complex attitude toward class,” than denial.  But I also take yours and Scott’s point: it’s not a small detail that McGrath’s favored examples (Banks, Russo, Price) are mainly concerned with the white working class.  (Actually, that’s not wholly true of either Banks or Price.) White, industrial, blue collar workers are still the resonant images of labor in American culture.

By on 06/09/05 at 02:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I lost the long version of this comment to two cats (inside), a bird (outside), and a window (between them), so if this is a little “suggestive,” you know why:

Delillo...must...not...bash...Delillo…

In his recent work, the exterior world ideally exists as a reflection of the interior.  In this situation, class-consciousness isn’t merely absent, it’s impossible to come by, which is another way of saying that it exists primarily as nostalgia.  In Underworld, for example, Matt’s father encourages him to “Go to Arthur Avernue, Matty.  Look at the shops and the people shopping and the people weighing fish and cutting the meat.  This will restore your spirits” (214).  The nostalgia for (ostensibly) unalienated labor becomes a spectacle for the alienated laborer--Matt should watch people work with their hands because, well, Matt’s depressed.  It’s the cultivation of class-consciousness as therapy.  Delillo actually thematizes how uninterested he is in the world outside his characters’ minds.  Consider “the Pocket,” “one of those nice tight societies that replaces the world.  It was the world made personal and consistently interesting because it was what you did, and others like you, and it was self-enclosed and self-referring and you did it all together in a place and a language inaccessible to others” (412, emphasis mine).  Rarely, if ever, has a writer damned his work so accurately.  It’s difficult for class-consciousness to exist when the world is “made personal” but remains unsentimental.  (Cue John’s comment about Dickens.) This interiority is obviously inimical to social realism, but when it’s considered a major literary statement about “History,” it’s assumed to say something--and something interesting, no less--about the exterior world.  Only it doesn’t. 

Johnson’s an example of someone who successfully thematizes (and sentimentalizes) “History” in The Name of the World.  I say this not because I have time to write about this more (I don’t) but so people don’t think me a Negative Nancy.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/09/05 at 04:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I’ll have to clarify what I mean.  You wrote, “To the extent, DeLillo for one sees class as ethnicity, he doesn’t see what naturalism, but not necessarily only naturalism, considered: inequality, exploitation, cruel necessity.”

I don’t think DeLillo equates class and ethnicity.  If we put the “plot” of *Underworld* into its “story” order, we can see it’s the tale of a working class Italian tough who grows up to be “white” and “middle class” and a technocrat.  But by having the narrative discourse reel the film in reverse, so to speak, DeLillo at once challenges the naturalist desire to make us *determined* by class and biology at the same time he shows us how a man loses his qualities. his particularity, his rootedness (which is perhaps a claim about all of us losing such rootedness, which would also be a claim about the nostalgia for roots via a return to naturalism).  I think *Underworld* takes on class, but complicates naturalism and economic or biological determinism.

DeLillo can’t be accused of ignoring class: look at *Cosmopolis*, for crying out loud.  Again, it charts the same narrative course as *Underworld*: a deracinated, technologically saavy rich man heads for his old neighborhood barber for an old neighborhood haircut.  The fact that he runs into his killer there is perhaps a ruthless statement about this nostalgic or commodified desire to “return to our roots” in class and region and ethnicity. 

This is why Whitehead’s *John Henry Days* is so important (even though it’s not as great a novel as *The Intuitionist*): we finally have an African-American novel that speaks to this deracination that’s more about class mobility than it is about ethnic assimilation ("acting white").  Both Whitehead and DeLillo are talking about the sublation of ethnicity into class, the subsuming of local particularity into global universality (the Internet at the end of *Underworld* which is also Hegel’s world-spiritual night where all cows are black—or should I say, the morning where all cows are “lily white”?).

Scott, I don’t quite understand your comments.  To posit narrative interiority and reference to exteriority as incommensurate realities seems drastic: *Ulysses* and *Mrs Dalloway* all comment on class and history while rarely leaving the interiors of their characters (while Raymond Carver’s emphasis on only external reality says almost nothing about class or history).  In the examples you give, I think we see DeLillo ironizing this nostalgia for “unalienated labor;” at the same time that he gives us a taut geographical analysis of the urb/suburb/exurb shift (which is also about class). 

And I totally don’t get your position on sentimentality which, as Dedalus tells us, is when your heart writes a check which your brain can’t cash (or something like that).

In fact, the most authentically naturalist fiction today is chick lit, as we see a variety of female characters defined by their economic (shopping! career!) and biological (satistfying heterosexual lovemaking!) drives.  If Edith Wharton were alive and on Prozac, she’d be writing chick lit.  And if Dreiser were alive and British and on Prozac, he’d be writing “man’s lit.”

Finally, while everyone here seems nostalgic for good old fashioned naturalism, let’s remember how dreadful a novel something like *Sister Carrie* really is.  It’s smart but unevenly written (and over-written, to say the least).

By on 06/09/05 at 04:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

When reading Cosmopolis, I thought that it was American Psycho meets Wired. But that’s a trap.

By Jonathan on 06/09/05 at 04:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To posit narrative interiority and reference to exteriority as incommensurate realities seems drastic: *Ulysses* and *Mrs Dalloway* all comment on class and history while rarely leaving the interiors of their characters (while Raymond Carver’s emphasis on only external reality says almost nothing about class or history).

Of course other writers can create intimate connections between the interior mind and the exterior world.  I’m arguing that Delillo can’t, because…

I think we see DeLillo ironizing this nostalgia for “unalienated labor”

...I don’t think Delillo capable of ironizing anymore.  Read ironically, you’re correct, but I won’t grant that Delillo intends such passages to be read ironically.  He’s become the single most unironical writer in the history of the written word (although that may be hyperbole).  Thus, in my examples, you don’t witness Delillo ironizing the nostalgia for unalienated labor; you instead see Delillo’s nostalgia for unironized nostalgia of unalienated labor.  How very clever.  But that’s class-consciousness by proxy--"I wish I could feel for the working class what I once felt before I was incapable of feeling it"--and it’s what Delillo does instead of addressing issues of, say, class or race.  I haven’t read Underworld in a couple of years--or Delillo for that matter--but his glib dismissal of social realities in favor of faux-intellectual personal interpretations of social realities infuriates me.  (The gesture itself doesn’t bother me; what does is the “profound” conclusions his characters draw once they’ve withdrawn.)

Also, I’ve no nostalgia for naturalism.  A dissertation to write on it?  Yes.  Nostalgia?  No. 

(I should say, however, that I’m 100% on board with your assessment of Whitehead.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/09/05 at 05:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Finally, while everyone here seems nostalgic for good old fashioned naturalism, let’s remember how dreadful a novel something like *Sister Carrie* really is.  It’s smart but unevenly written (and over-written, to say the least).

LB, LB, LB, LB!  Sister Carrie is about the greatest friggin American novel ever.  Its style (yes, dreadful on the whole) has nothing to do with its grandeur.  DeLillo, well, just not even in the ballpark in my estimation.  Especially Underworld which in my book isn’t even close to in the running for his best stuff.  (Did you really use the adjective “taut” in connection with that doorstop?  Give me Libra, or White Noise, or the Names any day.)

I think Scott’s got this exactly right.  The only way class matters to the DeLillo of Underworld is as nostalgia.  And even if it is ironized, it’s still just ironized nostalgia.  I don’t disagree with your account of the novel, btw, but I don’t think your expansion here changes things much: class shows up mainly as a culture you can lose--i.e., analogous and in this rendition pretty directly equivalent to ethnicity.  McGrath may not have written the sutbtlest essay in the world, but he has this right: it’s all about anomie and psychological adjustment.

Put it another way: saying the U.S. is a country of deracinated technocrats is not--at least in my view--really talking about class in a significant way.  Nor is complicating determinism much of an achievement these days, I think.  Determinism has been getting complicated for decades now.  The unusual thing would be to show that, yes, some lives are determined.

By on 06/09/05 at 08:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a matter of taste, of course, and I personally prefer Delillo to Dreiser so much that it’s hard to measure. To me, Delillo is a much more mysterious, capable, and intelligent writer. Dreiser’s interesting, but I find reading Delillo pleasurable. I don’t think that we can ask intelligent questions about their relative importance.

By Jonathan on 06/09/05 at 08:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I’m supremely unsatisfied with my answer to you, but since I can’t amend it, I’ll have to blather on:

My objection to your account of Delillo isn’t to your account so much as Delillo, so let’s consider other contemporary novelists who write what could be considered traditional works of social realism in which class, race and sexual orientation are all contested terms.  The two I have in mind are Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude and Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.  Both present the complexities of social reality at a particular historical moment, but neither ever dips into the tired cliches of recent Delillo.  Categories haven’t been emptied of all significance, and the various determinisms at work are shown to 1) actually be at work (and not merely memorialized for therapeutic value) and 2) work in concert (sometimes in salutory ways but most often not).  The interactive quality of these various determinisms more closely resembles the complexities of a naturalist novel like Sister Carrie.  Carrie’s burdened and uplifted by social forces beyond her control, and for all his artless prose, Dreiser conveys the experience of this buffeting, thereby forcing readers of Sister Carrie to wrestle with the same deterministic forces that shape their lives.  Delillo doesn’t, nor, qua Sean’s original point, does he even seem to want to.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/09/05 at 08:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that we can ask intelligent questions about their relative importance.

If you’d said “I don’t think we can ask intelligent questions about their appeals to me as an individual reader"--which is where you seemed headed--I would’ve followed.  We can certainly ask intelligent questions about “their relative importance,” which makes me wonder whether I’ve fallen for your little trap.  If you’re serious, I’d love to hear which criterion of “importance” is impossible to question intelligently.  (If you’re not, don’t respond...I’ll shamble sheepishly into a corner and don the cone myself.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/09/05 at 09:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

plus, what more could you ask for then a novel that ends (at least in one version) with the line, “what’s the use”?  That’s an ending!  A nun disappearing into cyberspace doesn’t have quite the same resonance.

By on 06/09/05 at 10:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I agree that *White Noise* and *Libra* (I’ve not read *The Names*) are better, but I don’t think the DeLillo of *Underworld* totally writes off class as a determinant category.  I think of the novel as a sort of *Ragged Dick* in reverse: the story of upward mobility being rewound on a cosmic reel-to-reel machine (maybe Krapp’s?).  There *are* choices, and DeLillo investigates the protagonist’s decision to transform himself into a “man without qualities” after his teenage crime. 

Where I do see some nostalgia is in the fact that the only sympathetic characters—Sister Edgar, Bronzini, the graffiti artist—are all “local,” immersed in sometimes horrifying class conditions; while Klara escapes the local via her ridiculous avant-garde art and Nick via his career as a technocrat. 

(And I would definitely say *Sister Carrie* is of course the more significant of the two, even if sentence-by-sentence, DeLillo only fails with *Cosmopolis*.  I always think of Dreiser as of a pair with Stowe.)

Scott, I haven’t read the Letham novel yet (it’s on the shelf, though, which is half the battle!), but I do know the Chabon.  Did you really find that novel convincing at the social level?  I found its take on WWII-era ideological conflict a bit simplistic, even as it plays on the supposedly simplistic nature of mainstream comics ("the Jewish avenger” and so on).  Ethnically it was interesting; but I didn’t find it terribly convincing class-wise.

A superb contemporary novel in the “big house” tradition (relocated to upstate NY) is Joanna Scott’s *The Manikin*.  Her MFA training with John Hawkes certainly paid off—the prose is rich and creepy, sort of Hawthorne meets Bowen—but as a story of a mansion’s “staff” versus its owners, it is even more on the money (especially because Scott deftly handles race and gender and sexuality alongside class, all the while maintaining a sort of dark Transcendentalist attitude toward the natural world surrounding the House).

But I’m convinced Scott is our best young(ish) writer, with the exception perhaps of Steve Erickson.

But say: given that *Bookforum* issue on Pynchon, any rumors about a new novel from the Big Guy?  I’ll throw down with anyone who disses *Vineland* or *M&D* . . .

By on 06/09/05 at 11:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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