The Magazine

Moral Fiction

Three novelists and the challenge of engagement with the modern world.

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

I have this thing about schlock books, those that cater to our enduring fascination with public portrayals of manners and morals, especially failures in that regard. 

Dinaw Mengestu

Dinaw Mengestu

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Even while writing my dissertation on Goethe, I avidly read biographies of movie stars. But the stars are not like you and me, and a book that recently came across my desk reminded me of this difference: The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox (Broadway, 368 pp., $14.99). Truth be told, I put in a request for the book at my local library. Walking home with the plastic-covered volume, however, I concealed the cover, not wanting to advertise on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that I was reading about the woman who edged out Carla Bruni and Sarah Palin as Italy’s Woman of the Year in 2009.

For those who have been in a time warp, Amanda Knox is the Seattle girl who was studying Italian in Perugia when she was accused of participating in the murder of Meredith Kercher, her English apartment mate, in November 2007. Kim Kardashian and the current fascination with reality TV are minor sideshows compared with the elements that coalesced in the Knox murder trial: The unconventional behavior of the winsome, if witless, white-bread American collided with entrenched Italian fears about Masonic conspiracies and prejudices concerning female beauty and sexuality. 

Journalists flocked to Perugia to cover the trial of what the prosecution claimed was a satanic sexual ritual gone bad, and, in December 2009, Knox was found guilty and sentenced to 26 years in prison. The conviction was overturned, and she was freed in 2011. In the meantime, the Italians have overturned the acquittal and are reconsidering the case.

As Nina Burleigh writes in The Fatal Gift of Beauty, there is a reason “vendetta” is an Italian word. Burleigh is a real writer, and her portrait of how the Amanda Knox narrative was created stands several notches above other books about the case, including Knox’s own recent memoir, in which readers will find nothing about the Etruscan origins of Perugia or the persistence of paganism in Roman Catholic Umbria. 

We are drawn to these narratives and, as such, they are framed for public consumption because these cautionary tales allow us to measure our own stricter standards and practices against those who so egregiously fail to live up to common values (e.g., Jodi Arias) or who appear to have been falsely accused (Amanda Knox). 

The centrality of women is essential to these narratives, reflecting a weighty issue—namely, the attempts of society to come to terms with the changing role of the fairer sex since the 19th century. These tales follow in a long line of 19th-century novels charting the travails of women as diverse as Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Though the great Victorians wrote with sympathy about their subjects, society, too, had its mores that had to be respected.

Today’s serious literary fiction continues to be concerned with the ruinous price exacted by society for transgressions; but unlike Tolstoy or Eliot, today’s novelists evade passing judgment on their characters. We postmoderns, living in a more affluent age, believe the price too high. Thus, the moral dimension of individual will and bad choice disappears, and in its place Society (sometimes called “the family,” “the father,” “the husband,” “the parents,” “the boss”––they are all simply variants of power) is the culprit. 

This is a big letdown, because people want both to be entertained and to see their own lives and values reflected in what they read. The reigning literary class, however—the folks who write and market books—runs away from the obvious. The public also flees in droves from high-status books and discovers its morality tales in schlock books and TV. 

Which brings me to a piece that appeared in these pages last year, on “the American novel today,” in which Roger Kimball lamented the failure of contemporary novels to deal with the complexities of the moral life (“The Great American Novel,” February 27, 2012). Surprisingly, there was little about contemporary fiction; the only novel mentioned was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Instead, in making a point about the “proper” relation of literature to life and the current failure of literature in this regard, Kimball focused on the views of Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and even Hegel and Plato. 

Roger Kimball is, of course, correct when he writes that we now lack “the requisite community of readers, and the ambient shared cultural assumptions, to provide what we might call the responsorial friction that underwrites the traction of publicly acknowledged significance.” If at one time—say, before 1950—“a cultivated person” could anticipate the appearance of an important new novel, we now have many more distractions and diversions that make less of a demand on our attention.

Very true. But the reason for the loss of shared cultural assumptions is historical and irrevocable. Capitalism and the advance of democratic institutions, beginning in the late 18th century, have simply washed away an authoritative tradition, including the seemingly natural roles of men and women. In our complex and interconnected global economy, requiring increasing numbers of technicians and professionals, all hands are needed on board. There is an upside to this: Individuals are permitted to craft their own destinies, with women taking on tasks for which society formerly had no use. The downside is the market’s continuing appeal to waste the energy required to do so: all those distractions and diversions.

Thus, I doubt that literature, or “culture generally,” as Kimball writes (invoking Matthew Arnold), can provide “the civilizing and spiritually invigorating function that religion had provided for earlier ages.” Even in Arnold’s lifetime (1822–88), most people were not reading the novels of George Eliot in order to grasp the complexities of the moral life or even for literary edification. Thus, the ending of Kimball’s essay, when he writes that “increasingly, our most intense encounters with novels will be with novels of the past,” seemed a tad nostalgic. 

The past, however, does offer guidance in our current cultural situation. It is precisely the value of the past that is at the core of the battle between liberals––or what I prefer to call “postmoderns”––and conservatives. This is a battle between “patriarchy” and “patrimony,” and if conservatives wish to alter the current ideological milieu in their favor, they must fight to reclaim the past, unapologetically.

We should not, however, look to a specific past (since its practices are inevitably retrograde to modern eyes), or to a golden age, but to the long stretch of history during which certain values have been transmitted, even through the most terrible cataclysms. The survival of such values—love of family, sacrifice for others, courage, self-discipline, self-reliance, inner cultivation, patriotism—suggests that they are essential to the human condition, to the continuance of civilization, and, indeed, to the affluence that supports our historically unprecedented way of life. (Lacking self-discipline, Amanda Knox came unwittingly to fit the narrative created by journalists and prosecutors.) 

Aristotle summed up these values long ago, and no one has improved on them. Or, to quote the aforementioned Marilynne Robinson from her recent collection of essays, reviewed here in June: “The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.”

The problem for most of us, however, is that goodness is often in conflict not only with other values but also with our basic desires. Thus, a major preoccupation of the Western literary tradition, since Sophocles and the Old Testament, has been what Georg Lukács called the breach between inner and outer worlds. Adam and Eve certainly had fewer distractions, but the condition of the individual under advanced capitalism, despite a panoply of choices, is in essence the same. When push comes to shove, one is often still faced with choosing between incompatible alternatives, between what we love or desire and what we are required to do. To be fully human, as conservatives recognize it, is to accept this challenge of the moral life. 

My reading of contemporary literary fiction reveals that many young and prominent writers recognize and are attempting to portray this challenge. Let me mention three.

The debut novel The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (Random House, 368 pp., $15) is particularly interesting in that it shows the attempt to eject history instruction from our schools and universities to be unsuccessful. Young novelists, it seems, have an innate drive to understand what preceded them. On one level, The Tiger’s Wife is a straightforward, realist story about a young Serbian doctor on a humanitarian mission in Croatia. The doctor, a rationalist, finds herself frustrated by local superstitions that are the product of a long history, which is recounted in alternating chapters. These are imaginative retellings of village tales that depict the irrational loves and hatreds that have historically bound these Balkan peoples together and then succeeded in tearing them apart. Obreht is not cynical or judgmental: She recognizes her ancestors as complex individuals, not the stock figures of the postmodernist imagination.

Equally at odds with the postmodernist vision is Jennifer Egan’s most recent novel, which portrays the difficulty of doing the right thing, or of finding one’s way to the right path in an ideological milieu that insists that all choices are okay, or all paths are good. A Visit from the Goon Squad (Anchor, 352 pp., $15.95) ranges in time from about 1990 to 2019 (yes, into the future) and presents in 13 individualized chapters the lives of people in and on the periphery of the music industry and public relations. The picture is not pretty—for instance, there is an excruciating scene in which a 13-year-old girl performs fellatio on a middle-aged man—and very few conservative writers have limned a more horrifying portrait of the degradation produced by these industries and popular culture. 

What is remarkable, and what we should celebrate as praiseworthy, is that Egan manages the considerable feat of neither glamorizing nor pitying her characters. She does not even blame society, but instead humanizes these individuals, who are trying to get through very bad times with only their own instincts to guide them. One character, a washed-up film star, becomes heroic when she stands up to a genocidal dictator.

It should be said that the most ambitious literary novelists today no longer write straightforward narratives, even when they eschew the postmodernist critique of society. Plot, narrative arc, descriptions of place, even states of mind––the stock in trade of the canonical novels––are used sparingly or have been dispensed with.

If there is any literary convention more pertinent to the dissolution of shared cultural norms, it is the insertion of the author into the narrative to draw attention to the fact that what one is reading is not real life but has, instead, been “constructed.” Already in the 18th century, certain novelists––Diderot, Laurence Sterne––made themselves part of their narrative and cast doubt on the truth of the story they were telling. But what was radical in Diderot and Sterne has become common in modern literary novels.

Thus, Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air (Riverhead, 320 pp., $15) is a novel about fictions; the first-person narrator, trying to understand the failure of his own marriage, imaginatively re-creates the life of his parents, Ethiopian immigrants in the Midwest, at a critical moment in their own marriage. One can read this novel as a story about family dysfunction, but the fault here lies not with a supposedly racist America: These immigrants, like others who have come before them, simply carry too much baggage—namely, the overwhelming weight of their own past. Their failure is due to a lack of imagination, an inability to tell stories about another person and thus arrive at an empathetic understanding of one another. Moreover, Mengestu builds on a now-venerable 20th-century American literary tradition by writing about the experience of immigrants.

For conservatives who hope to win the future, one place to start would be engaging with such contemporary fiction, attending to and celebrating works that grapple with the enduring values of the Western cultural tradition. Through craftsmanship and inventiveness, many novelists, even as they portray the present reality of social fragmentation, are also reconnecting with the Western literary inheritance––with our patrimony. Let us give them our attention. 

Failing that, we will have to rely on Amanda Knox.

Elizabeth Powers is the editor of Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea.  

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers