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
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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.  

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