Thursday, January 27, 2022

Elisabeth Sheffield: I never promised you a realist novel

Unless a Menippean satirist be in charge, the novel’s history doesn’t repeat itself as farse but as a fratricide of forms. Popular forms are flushed out, others long forgotten flash by before buying the farm again. For all the epitaphs to the epistolary novel, it has proven as durable as epigraphs inscribed on statues, so long as we call it the email novel. But form is scenery around a spinning carrousel from which two passengers at the core of consciousness keep getting on and off: duty to the real and delight in reverie.

Until science shot down scholasticism and set fiction writers straight, as students of rhetoric into whose heads models of imitation were drilled their crux had been not the copy of nature but the copy of manuals. But as the scientist began to decide what truth was, his debased cousin the novelist followed suit; he learned from him that function follows form, and since the scientist’s style was anti-rhetorical, if fiction must be as faithful to facts as possible then it must concern itself with ordinary content to go with a non-rhetorical style; soon the 18th-century novel was reporting empirical reality, excluding from expression a once expansive dimension that we may call “the imagination”. As Morris Kline puts it in Mathematics in Western Culture: “Men we have met as outstanding mathematicians in preceding chapters were set up as literary models in the eighteenth century. Descartes’ style was extolled for its clarity, neatness, readability, and perspicuity, and Cartesianism became a style as well as a philosophy. The elegance and rationality of Pascal’s manner, especially in his Lettres Provinciales, were hailed as superb attributes of literary style. Writers in almost all fields began to ape as closely as their subject matter permitted the works of Descartes, Pascal, Huygens, Galileo, and Newton.” So it was bye-bye erudite, finespun euphuism, hello textbook prose. “Metaphors were banished in favor of accurate language describing objective realities. Locke said, in this connection, that metaphors and symbolism are agreeable but not rational. The pedantic, florid, scholarly style with complex Latinized constructions was abandoned in favor of simple, more direct prose. Banished, also, were impetuous flights of imagination, vigorous, emotionally charged expressions, poetic exuberance, enthusiasm, and sonorous and highly suggestive phrases.” It turns out that the new definition of “reality” resented from representation and reporting unless the rhetorical repertoire be quite reduced. “The concern of writers was to communicate facts in a style that would accord with the high standards of logical thought.”

The novel had finally found its proper style and form, a combo that constrained its calling: the reproducing of the external world as it’s empirically perceived by the senses, with particular bias to eyesight, in as unadorned, straightforward, impersonal a style as one used to draw an equation on the blackboard. After all, what could it possibly mean to write a stylish or subjective mathematical equation? To add your personal touch to Newton’s “F = Gm1m2/r2”? “Everyone always puts a tiny 2 after the c, it’s such a goddamn cliché by now! You know what, screw that! I’m breaking the rules, bro, I’m writing E = mc3. I’m so original!” Yeah, good for you, bro. But deluded that they had overcome the Schoolman’s schemata, enlightened thinkers simply hid reality under a more respectable model. Eyeing the scientific analogy, the novelist figured that if natural laws operate the same way everywhere the external world must universally seem the same to everyone too, so his job isn’t rocket science, it’s just a matter of describing what is seen as clearly and concisely as possible; in a self-fulfilling stylistic move, to make this come true in spite of the world’s multifariousness, from novel to novel every description of clothing, vehicles, hairdos, streets, objects, façades, every relating of ambitions, backgrounds of heroes and demises of villains must ideally tend toward epistemological sameness, which is what platitudinous plain prose was originally invented for. The world’s outer integrity seemed to him as inviolate as the equation, everything as irremovable as that tiny 2 from its assorted place. Undoubtedly his duty to reality was done.

But towards the end of the 18th century some poets thought that reverie needed to make its comeback, even if by this time it sounded like an unhinged rock star past his prime who had taken to social media to spout crazy right-wing galimatias. Be that as it may, the poets thought that scientific progress notwithstanding the loss of transcendence had been too costly a price to pay. So immured to invisible regions of the spirit had scientific-minded readers become that their reentrance in them had to be as carefully and stealthily prepared as invasions of neighboring countries. In Biographia Litteraria, Samuel Coleridge explained how he tried to sneak the supernatural back into the minds of readers for whom it had been debunked as the unsexy province of silly superstition. He called it “suspension of disbelief”. What did poems do? “The immediate purpose may be the communication of truths; either of truth absolute and demonstrable, as in works of science; or of facts experienced and recorded, as in history.” Coleridge knew that truth “absolute and demonstrable” is a burden poetry took upon itself after Bacon and Descartes. The same way narrative fiction went from being about wandering knights who put severed limbs back with magical unguents after vanquishing giants to the circumstance-heavy novels of Defoe and Richardson, poetry should take a cue from science and curb its proclivity for fancy.

But Coleridge and Wordsworth yearned for the higher, spiritual truths of yore, when the poet spoke for God: “During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbours, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination. The sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sunset diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both.” As The Lyrical Ballads began to take shape into game-changing stuff, Coleridge, conscious that if the poet wanted to remain relevant to modern readers he either subjected himself to science or entered in an agreement with them that poetry was a privileged place to explore dimensions imperceptible to science, worked his solution into the text, namely poems that claimed for themselves primacy over areas of consciousness outside the instruments of science but nonetheless no less important and true in an experiential sense. Since readers were truth-drunk, Coleridge needing to operate within its prestige’s purview expanded the definition of “truth” to temporarily include its outcasts. In his version, he and Wordsworth devised two series of poems: “In the one, the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency.” It was agreed that Coleridge’s “endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Originally, then, suspension of disbelief was a sort of agreed-upon hallucinogenic contract that authorized the educated reader to adopt a mindset cleansed of the contempt for the supernatural hat had only been created in the preceding two centuries, when “the distinctions were only beginning to be made which for later ages shut off poetry from science, metaphor from fact, fancy from judgement”, as Basil Willey wrote in The Seventeenth Century Background. For poetry to function, for it to remain effective as a source of beauty, emotion and truth, more and more the poet had to take it upon himself the task of educating the reader on how to read it. Hence soon the prefaces to The Lyrical Ballads were a staple of the modern poetry book, the poet’s pitiful attempt to communicate with his fellow man who went on turning his back on him, a ploy predicated on the belief that man was rational and could be argued with, even if what was being asked of him was to take part in make-believe in order not to spoil pleasure from experiencing what was known to be false according to pervasive scientific standards.

However, this didn’t work because it required of the reader that he constantly play two roles: one the rational mind that society reared him to be; the other a temporary nephelibate. A spiritual schism was inevitable since the human mind naturally yearns for something beyond the visible world, so humans already go about their lives as if moving in and out of a trance, but this supernatural content they craved was cordoned off in a corner of culture called trashy entertainment. Instead of a lifetime playing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde he could just read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde knowing it was all made up. Fantastic fiction honestly advertised as such gave him the vacations from verity he needed without having to condescend to believe in what society taught him was bonkers, as Coleridge had pleaded. Whereas he hoped to elevate the status of the supernatural, the victorious alternative left realism unblemished, for even though the educated reader secretly if guiltily enjoyed this foolish fare, only children, the feeble-minded and the unwashed masses reputed it serious reading.

As poets and fictionists continued to tackle this concept of reality either literally or through deformed states of soul, the reader seldom had to suspend his disbelief because the content of Balzac or Flaubert or Tolstoy or James only asked him to believe in what the newspaper had already programmed him to believe in. Why suspend disbelief about adultery, backstabbing social climbers and tyrannical owners of sweat shops that used child labor? Their readers were tyrannical owners of sweat shops that used child labor and who more than likely at some point stabbed someone in the back in their ascent from their humble origins, and who probably cheated the woman they’d married in church. Now Dracula? Well, that’s just entertainment, I know it’s not “real”, so to enjoy it I need not suspend any mental prejudices I harbor.

In the 20th century as fictionists rallied to cut realism down to size, another strategy showed better results. They discovered that they could induce anxiety in man by springing the unreliable narrator on his thirst for clarity. The unreliable narrator was so potent because he can nonchalantly infiltrate the realm of the realist novel, mimic its outer shell seamlessly, tiptoe to content that requires no suspension of disbelief, and sneakily turn the seemingly familiar into something weird, untrustworthy, a quicksand of conjectures. Is Humbert Humbert really repentant? Is that guy who approaches the narrator in Gonzalo Torrent Ballester’s Don Juan 81963) really Don Juan, the actual honest to goodness 17thc loverboy miraculously alive and well in 20thc Paris, or just a charlatan? Wait, so did dr. Jamf really operate on Tyrone Slothrop or is that just paranoia? And who the hell really is Charles Kinbote? Instead of suspending disbelief to enjoy the story, the reader slips into a diluvium of doubts, loses himself in a maze of misdirection, anxious to find an unreachable truth since those novels are built by design as insoluble enigmas. As member of a species whose brain evolved to scan signs of danger in the African Savanna, try suspending giving a hoot about lacunas in your reality picture, that’s trickier, and by the way welcome to modern fiction, you’ll never leave the funhouse.

In the past the merry-go-round’s full spin seemed to have clearer starting and finishing positions, with realism knowing when its ride was over and when to get out for reverie to have a bit of fun too. If we simplify it, the history of the novel up until recently developed as a ping-ponging, yin-yanging, yawning yarn between these two aspirations. But although some nostalgists still pine for that state of affairs, I think it’s a paradigm long gone, we no longer move back and forth between realism and a reverie that used to be the jurisdiction of a self-styled avant-garde.

In the past it was easier to cleave clear chunks from the time continuum and chuck them into a jar with a label on it. Such a detachable albeit facile construal is called the “conventional novel”, popular between the mid-18th century and the early 20th, known for telling linear tales in everyday language about ordinary people carrying out ordinary behavior. I myself often use this caricature knowing it’s a caricature to make communication easier, it sure saves saliva to say “the 19th century novel” instead of “the 19th century novel minus Moby Dick, The Confidence-Man, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, The Saragossa Manuscript, The Relic, Sartor Resartus” and a variable number of titles depending on one’s particular knowledge. Likewise, it was easier to isolate the novel between 1930 and 1960 and detect massive identity traits within a country and from country to country. A sheen of homogeneity alighted easily on the novel back then, for long stretches it looked as nondescript as a desert plain. For instance I never found a sci-fi novel by a “literary” Portuguese novelist from the 1940s, and it wasn’t from lack of trying, but such artefact didn’t exist, it wasn’t within the habits permitted by good taste, and few factors as fear of affronting good taste contributed more to making the novel so internationally samey during this period. If you read a Russian, Brazilian, Italian, Spanish, North-American, Portuguese novel from the 1940s you’ll likely find in them a searing portrait of the exploitation of the working class, Erskine Caldwell and Jorge Amado a transmissible formula. The majority agreed that this and not flights of fancy was the proper business of the novel.

The rare moments when realism has relinquished its hold over the novel have coincided with the wavering of our default worldview congruous with the scientific, rational outlook that has reigned since the Enlightenment and which isn’t likely to disappear unless nine billion minds suddenly give up believing that the Cartesian method is the best method to solve problems and go back to believing in fairies and fate to sort their daily lives, unraveling in the process the entire fabric of society as we know it. Such a moment in this dialectical dance of doubt and confidence happened when Romanticism fleetingly rebutted realism; when the Symbolists got fed up with Zolaesque naturalism; and after World War II. They constituted short periods when reason’s fall of grace provided opportunity for non-realistic fiction to reenchant the world. But unless we stop checking into hospitals for heart surgery because this morning we left offerings to our goddess in that shrine we tweeted about, literary realism won’t leave the novel. Nothing short of a cataclysm could make us go back to worshipping dryads en masse and dressing up as druids, and if that happened I think quibbling over novelistic modes would be the last of our priorities.

I think this alternation is a good working model of how things operated in the past, but that has been superseded by a state mixture. We’re strongly welded to a worldview that worships science and technology, but whereas our predecessors thought that their business was to be as rational as scientists, we’re happy letting science exist in the background taking care of us while we give free rein to be whoever and however we want, without fear of ridicule. We’re still benefitting from the last period of doubt, the 1960s, which simultaneously saw the rise of psychedelic drugs, New Age spirituality and avant-garde writers who directed the better part of their creative energies to dethrone the “conventional novel”. Ever since they established that the novel doesn’t have a fixed form outside the minds of nostalgists, the homogeneity that defined it has become untenable, and useless and specious the old division between realism and avant-garde. It turns out that most people, given the choice, do prefer to be realists, but although the default mode still leans to realism, nowadays no one is ostracized or belittled anymore for borrowing from what used to belong exclusively to trashy fiction, and it’s easier than ever to find examples of the odious ogre “literary fiction” that contain borrowings from fantasy, sci-fi, thriller, genre fiction, even romance fiction. This partially happened because the avant-garde won back then, even if nowadays we pretend it was a temporary malaise that left no traces of its disturbed disturbance.

The avant-garde wasn’t important because of the quality of the books themselves, although they were good; or because they introduced lots of new innovations and techniques, since many of them hailed from fiction’s past, for when John Barth made his nested structures he knew he was aping Scheherazade, and whoever did self-reflective novels knew they harkened back to Cervantes, Swift and Sterne, three engines of anti-realist inspiration ever since they entered the reading habits of the Romantic novelists, the first generation that assailed the realist novel fully conscious of it. The baby-boomers knew they were moving back in time, but not so much that they’d find themselves in a cave inventing the wheel; they were at best fastening old wheels on more aerodynamic frames for frolics on bumpier roads. In many cases, innovating didn’t amount to anything more remarkable than remaking the picaro for modern times. What the novelist won was a widening of ways of writing without loss of status: henceforth he could choose not to be a realist without worrying that his peers would give him embarrassed side glances as if he were peddling porn from a wheelbarrow.

Ten years ago people still had trouble understanding this. When I started St. Orberose in 2012, the literary blogosphere resembled postcards showing grass-covered battlefields long abandoned. Bloggers still banded together to bicker over an essay by Zadie Smith, “Two Paths for the Novel”, although it had come out four years before and although it merely rehashed debates that had taken place half a century before. I remember there was a dude called David Shields doing the rounds who predicted that the novel was going to die, replaced by a new type of personal essay, all explained in his gospel Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, an uninteresting variation on the deranged beliefs espoused by people like Tom Wolfe back in the 1960s that a thing called New Journalism was where the real vitality was at and that the novel was about to go the way of the dodo: at least Wolfe’s novels have certainly joined other Illustrious Extinct.

Back then which side the novelist took also determined whether he was a realist or not. A specific worldview implied adequate tools to express it. But now that everything’s mixed up, along with hybrids that are better than the sum of the best in both we’re also stalled by impasses, novels whose quality are hindered because they’ve tried to do two antagonistic things at the same time. It doesn’t help that in the past it was easier to say no to the avant-garde like candy offered by a creepy stranger in a park. Elisabeth Sheffield’s Ire Land (A Faery Tale) (2021) stands out as an example, a novel that provides good old-fashioned realism when it’s not sabotaging itself with avant-garde aspirations.

Although I wasn’t familiar with Sheffield until recently, she’s been going at it for nearly two decades now during which time she published Gone (2003), Fort Da: A Report (2009), and Helen Keller Really Lived (2014). Before moving to Spuyten Duyvil, she was associated with Fiction Collective Two (FC2), a publishing community created in 1974 by avant-garde writers who were tired of having their experimental manuscripts turned down by major publishers. Why I picked up her fourth novel is a mystery to be, it’s something like what André Gide called the acte gratuite, that irrational first action that gets the plot going. My longstanding contumacy with fiction is that I’m way past the simplistic duel of realist versus non-realist described above, it’s over. I prefer other simplistic duels like: piss-poorly written novels versus Nabokovian novels, or cliché-ridden novels versus novels as fucking amazingly written as William H. Gass’ The Tunnel, aka the duels that haven’t motivated a single article in literary outlets ever since I’ve been following them online. For years now it’s been my inquiry to understand why it is that although people now generally agree that novels can contain anything, portray or invent anything, be any genre and mesh any genres they want in the wildest concoctions, everyone from a so-called avant-garde like Tom McCarthy to a YA fiction dabbler like Sally Rooney still agrees that novels should continue to be written in the invisible prose of dishwashing machines instruction manuals. Since I disagree, since I’m old-fashioned enough to think they should be written in the jewel-incrusted prose of John Lyly and Jeremy Taylor, if not of Gorgias’, very often reading fiction for me is as taxing and disappoint as trying to establish empathy with lifeforms with a completely different nervous system than mine. At this point I think it’s easier for me to know what it’s like to be a bat than what it’s like to be a novelist.

One reason for my weakness was because Carole Maso blurbs in the back that Ire Land “is an exquisite construction – as sly as Nabokov”, which proves that we have disparate views on Nabokov. Maybe it was the title’s pun, leading me to anticipate a nonstop flow of punning in the manner of Paul West or Anthony Burgess, but by page 1 style is like a lorry carrying literalism that broke down in a street, waiting for a tow truck while its cargo is being looted and stashed in every page. With trepidation I turned to 2, hoping that if the gear hadn’t moved so high it had at least been taken from park. I concede that Sheffield tries, I spot glimpses of wording carrying the care to compose as well as to communicate, but it’s so inconsistent it resembles an afterthought, a glitch in the code instead of attempts at executing a design. This saddens me because I think she could have done better had she tried harder.

But since stylewise I start every novel with low expectations, its present somnolence didn’t intrigue me as much as the three overlapping novels inside Ire Land: the one she wrote; the one I think she could have written; and the captivating realist novel she did everything in her power to pretend she didn’t want to write but peeking through the cracks like zombies’ eyes in a house under siege.

Ire Land is comprised of five dated emails sent and unsent by one Sandra Dorn to a woman identified as Madmaeve17. Add to this a prefatory note by Malachi McLaughlin to Dorn’s daughter, Kew, plus a final undated text directed by Dorn to Madmaeve17. Also, McLaughlin annotated her emails with marginal commentary. From the start we’re led to suspect that McLaughlin may have tampered with the texts: “I cut, pasted and reorganized – tidied up, so to speak – to provide you with an account of the last nine months of Sandra Dorn’s life, in her own words. To be sure, I also inserted a few editorial annotations of my own, here an there, but only for the sake of clarification and occasional, ahem, amendment.” We’ve been expertly and economically handed out the components for an unreliable narrator. We sophisticated readers are supposed to pick up on them and shoot questions: who is Malachi McLaughlin? What are his intentions? Why do his annotations become more unhinged as the narrative progresses? Why do they seem to harbor ill will toward Dorn? Did he adulterate the content? Can we trust the emails? Dear oh me, isn’t everything fiction, aren’t our lives mere social constructs and our selves that strike us so solid nothing but shadows after all?

Since it’s easy to put the Past and the Present playing 6 degrees of separation, I myself can spot similarities between the current pressure on novelists to address privilege, give voice to the unvoiced, step aside for the unvoiced to speak for themselves, denounce the rise of neofascism, tackle climate change, global warming, surveillance capitalism, put the political pulse on the page after feeling it, and the 1930s when Socialist Realism was being smuggled from the Soviet Union into the directives of every local Communist Party, which told the artists who joined exactly how and what they should write. Sometimes it does look a lot like we’re reliving modernism’s swansong, when after a brief scare realism encroached upon novelists again with missionary zeal to save the world. The constant scrutiny of the private morality of the author and its role in assessing the value of fiction brings to memory the bad days when novelists were deemed good or bad depending on whether they publicly professed a half socialist half communist international humanism, even if mere virtue signaling, or remained atavistically unprogressive, unwilling to give up their decadent, individual pursuits. Smith wasn’t necessarily wrong about a new McCarthy Era, she just misidentified the McCarthy we’d emulate. She was also wrong in thinking that we’d move away from realism, for instead we got an avalanche of autofiction, realism at its most egocentric. Because of so much self-centeredness seeping into the collective psyche, society more than never wants to believe that novels are just autobiography, some more than others, but always the tell-tale heart, never the tall-tale-telling art. Characters blurt out the racism and misogyny their authors secretly believe and undoubtedly practice discreetly. This is a remarkable change: in Coleridge’s time it was believed that writers shouldn’t imagine, create, invent, instead they should stick to reproducing reality as prosaically as possible; nowadays we believe that writers can’t possibly imagine, create, invent things they don’t personally believe in, such impersonal distancing beyond their faculties and Faculties of Letters whence students leave thinking that from the mind to the page there’s a dulcifluous transition of personality, no doubt because they spent their course years not understanding how creativity works but prepping “personal essays” a la Shields, and when everyone in the past is judged against such low criterion I guess writing does come to resemble a mere orifice for the shallow self to shit sheets with.

When the social realist novel’s surplus of sanctimony peaked in the 1940s, it’s telling that those awful individualistic novelists who didn’t care much for kowtowing to the Kremlin’s coordinates started imploding its mimetic pretensions by giving the duties to unreliable narrators. Oh, your little novel is a puissant pamphlet telegraphing your good intentions? That’s nice, but did you know how easy it is to lie with words? To state things you don’t believe in? That paragraphs are putty you can make any persona out of? It doesn’t take much: point out lacunas and inconsistencies, give the narrator a penchant for manic raving, throw in a criminal background for good measure, slip in a brief allusion to mental illness, add doubt, make the reader question his motives. We all know this novel, it used to be called Lolita and Pale Fire. Some may know it by the name The Floating Opera, a remarkable novel whose narrator is attempting to reconstruct the events that led to his trying to kill himself on a given day except – this is the fun bit – he doesn’t even remember which day was that, he’s too lazy to look up the date. One I’m personally fond of is called Dom Tanas de Barbatanas, a strange historical novel shaped as a panegyrist’s eulogy to the most amazing nobleman that ever lived, except Dom Tanas’ a scoundrel, a coward, a prepotent prick, a backstabbing careerist; the particular fun of reading it comes from the constant discrepancy between what Dom Tanas clearly is and what his panegyrist (I don’t mean it figuratively, he’s an actual panegyrist) wants us to believe he is, and the overt and covert ways it’s signaled that he’s been messing up the historical record to cast him in as good a light as if it were beaming from the Almighty Himself.

Interestingly, whenever we’ve needed to roast realism we’ve instinctively reverted to this anti-mimetic technique by default. When Smith put up Remainder as the dubious future of the novel, one of the passages that left such a big impression on that she transcribed it whole was:

   The waiter came back over. He was… She was young, with large, dark glasses, an Italian woman. Large breasts. Small.

   “What do you want to know?” my homeless person asked.

   “I want to know…” I started, but the waiter leant across me as he took the tablecloth away. She took the table away too. There wasn’t any table. The truth is, I’ve been making all this up – the stuff about the homeless person. He existed all right, sitting camouflaged against the shop fronts and the dustbins – but I didn’t go across to him.

Narrators admitting that they’ve made everything up is a stale staple of avant-garde 101. Non-existing tables? Tom is such an intellectual powerhouse, he can’t have taken that from somewhere else. “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining”, wrote Beckett in Molloy. In Joyce’s “A Painful Case”, we read about Mr. James Duffy: “He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. He never gave alms to beggars and walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel.” The short-story is in the third person. In Ronald Sukenick’s Up (1968), a narrator who happens to be called Ronald Sukenick admits that he sometimes makes up what he’s narrating. In The Tunnel (1995), after Kohler finishes narrating a long lyrical segment he states it’s all untrue. Kind of hard to see what got Smith so excited a decade ago. I sometimes think that amnesia is a requisite for being an affective reader, otherwise I can’t explain the euphoria well-read people express whenever they come into contact with what by their well-readness they must have come into contact a thousand times before.

The reason why I do respect novels that half a century fostered these frustrations and am blasé about Remainder and Ire Land is that this was riskier and rarer then. To make it fresher, let’s consider Dom Tanas de Barbatanas, an extravaganza from 1962. The author Tomaz de Figueiredo sparsely indicated the exact year a given episode happen in. So it’s important when the narrator indicates that Dom Tanas completed his studies before the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon. We know that Tanas studied in the Colégio dos Nobres (Noblemen’s College), a school created by the secretary of State Sebastião José to train noblemen for key positions in the civil service. The catch is that Sebastião José didn’t open that school until 1761. In fact, the building was vacant precisely because it used to be a Jesuit church and he expelled all Jesuits and seized their property in 1759. Tomaz, who studied in a Jesuit college and whose uncle was the historian of the third and last expulsion of Jesuits in 1910, knew full well that the narrator bungled the dates and he relied on the reader to know it too. But when I surveyed as many of the original reviews as I found, I realized that not a single reviewer noticed this or other deliberate anachronisms. It would be easy to call them incompetent, but reviewers and readers simply weren’t yet trained to expect novelists to play tricks, pranks, mischief, they didn’t know they were expected to participate in the construction of the text’s meaning. The majority was not yet aware that it lived in the “age of suspicion”, as Sarraute had aptly baptized it six years before. Whatever lessons modernists could have imparted to them were sidelined by the recrudescence of the earnest novel that reports the world as it is. Modernism was at best an acculturated but distant nightmare, everyone revered Ulysses, of course!, but thank God someone else had taken up the awful business of writing it, now it was a done deal and we could just go back to writing proper novels in the proper way for the rest of time, linear reports about truth-like events in plain prose, the way Newton intended it.

Where there’s an unreliable narrator there are usually overt signs pointing at form and vice versa, and it’s no surprise that Lolita, The Floating Opera and Dom Tanas de Barbatanas either play with typography, pastiche genres and styles or address the reader directly, bringing attention to the text as artifice. If the red brick shines from underneath the plaster, electric cords jut out of socketless holes, and sun beams fillet the air because the roof’s missing tiles, we wonder if we’re inside a house at all. Emphasizing artificiality filled most of the bag of tricks belonging to Sukenick when he, Raymond Federman and their pals were setting up the Fiction Collective. Just a year later Robert Alter published Partial Magic: The Novel as Self-Conscious Genre, which is all about how the novel undermines mimesis. The title paid homage to Borges and inside the living novelist most analyzed was, natch, Nabokov, after a whole chapter dedicated to grandfather, Sterne.

Another much prized technique was the rant. If you put a narrator ranting for a while sooner or later the intensity of the language will generate familiarity to keep the reader at bay from communion with him. This doesn’t depend per se on the unreliable narrator, but it was a much-used technique at the time by those who were fed up with realism. Give a character a fling with facundia and in no time realism subsumes, for fancy begets fancy and in an attempt to up the ante the voice loses sight of moderation. Alex’s Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange. The manic shoptalk of Stanley Elkin’s narrators. Rivers of rococo rhetoric from Gass’ and Theroux’s modern-day euphuists. If it weren’t for the chapter breaks, Ire Land would be a nearly uninterrupted rant by Dorn about how messed up her life is, and it’s when the ranting intensifies that she comes more alive but also sounds the most like the male ranters of yore, a less florid John Banville from The Book of Evidence, a Gaddis without player pianos to focalize his fury on.

Finally, we sign-seekers are kept nights awake wondering about the ambiguous status of Dorn’s putative transformation into a hare. In dreams she sees herself growing fur, and once she wakes up to indeed notice parts of her body newly furred. In the end she seems to have a vision or encounter with a supernatural being that triggers her transformation. But the episode is told with dexterous nebulosity, unlike David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (1922). Garnett didn’t mind the label of fantasist, but Sheffield can’t decide whether she’s a realist or not, so she can’t play it straight. In the 1960s avant-garde novels didn’t worry about taking cues from or behaving like fairy tales either, in fact they welcomed and instigated the comparisons, anything but being mistaken for their realist peers. Robert Scholes even coined in 1967 the term “fabulation” for this mode of fiction.

I’ve seen this so often that I don’t see why I’m supposed to be exhilarated by the nth novel about a narrator who may or may not be reliable. Ire Land is a reheated dish of déjà lu: the unreliable narrator, the visible artifice, the rant, the fantastic. It’s remarkable in a historical way how the novel that rejects realism continues to assume by default the tropes and trappings devised decades for battles long ended, but other than that it doesn’t satisfy. But I’m in the minority, for unlike me other reviewers found all of this admirable. In spite of the ravages of autofiction, some readers still sin in the inverse direction to those 1962 readers who detected no anachronisms; nowadays some require little incentive to assume that everything is text for interpretation, instead of wondering if there’s anything to interpret at all. But I’m not going to lose sleep over whether McLaughlin is maybe Dorn, nor am I going to entertain wild hypotheses as to why he seems to harbor such antipathy toward her. I don’t feel like it because the execution wasn’t very good. I may be missing something, but in that case so are the other reviewers, because so far we haven’t seen anything hidden that provides keys to a mystery, if there be a mystery at all. With Nabokov you know there are easter eggs and paper trails to find out in Pale Fire. When the narrator of Dom Tanas de Barbatanas claims that Dom Tanas attended a school, you can check out its date and learn by yourself that he couldn’t have because the school didn’t exist yet. But I find nothing hidden in Dorn’s otherwise earnest narration of her written and writhen life. McLaughlin’s annotations get increasingly mean-spirited, but if this is because there’s some bad blood between the two I don’t think we’ll ever find out because McLaughlin doesn’t exist outside his own textual contributions, he’s never mentioned by Dorn herself, making it very unwise to surmise anything. Maybe McLaughlin is a front for a character introduced in the last dated email, one Jeanine Malarkey, but she’s almost as ghostly. Maybe he’s Dorn herself in a final stage of insanity? And since you’re down Speculation St. give my regards to Scooby Doo.

But as early as the cradle we were given noisy signifiers to be kept silent, so the mind gyres and turns, perhaps finding more than the author supplied. Isn’t that “laugh” in McLaughlin curious? That “mad” in “Madmaeve17” wondrous? Can Jeanine’s surname be more than malarkey? But I don’t think any of this means anything, it’s either a fluke or residues from a game Sheffield never started designing fully awake and so was never fully developed, probably because she herself was never sure from the start what she was doing. In an interview she made it clear that her primal motivation wasn’t breaking the recrudescent self-assured novel but breaking taboos about old women and sexuality:

“Beckett’s Malone is an old man with a weak and disobliging body, and yet he fills the stage. So why couldn’t an old woman? It was more a matter of creating an interesting and compelling voice (it doesn’t matter what a character “looks like” on the page). But I suppose I was working against certain expectations and beliefs about old people as characters, and old women in particular, specifically that at this point there’s nothing to do but sit around and reminisce, nothing left to fight or struggle against, because all the important battles have been fought, and death conquers all.”

I think she succeeded. Sandra Dorn has a marvelous personality: an eristic, unruly, self-destructive, vulnerable but unapologetic personality. The book’s hope of retaining the reader’s interest lies precisely in the old-fashioned business of believing in the novel as a machine for reporting experiences we’re kept unaware of, in this case a lustful consciousness trapped inside an unappetizing female body, past its youth when it’s fit for society to worship it as an enticing and oversexed altar. When senescence hits, heat the libido down to lethargy. Sheffield says fuck that, Dorn instead of settling into dead desire pursues its satiety despite the betrayal of her own body.

I found her interesting because she strikes me as realistic in the traditional sense. But for a novelist who wants to show me a bit of the world I seldom register, Sheffield then ruins it by inflicting doubt and distance on the subject of my attention. This is out of place since the purpose of self-conscious techniques is to alienate the reader, to maunder mimesis, to wall up the world with words. So it wasn’t infrequent the annoyance I felt whenever I immersed myself in Dorn’s chaotic chronicle only for a useless annotation by McLaughlin to fish me out of it. I sympathize with Sheffield when she claims that she worries about “things like lower pay or the physical exploitation of women’s bodies”, which the realist novel was basically invented to portray and report, but I wonder at her conviction that she can put that in the same narrative while also “exploring the more abstract but equally powerful constraints of language and culture, which I think requires more than the toolkit of conventional realism.” I certainly agree it requires a different toolkit, that’s why it doesn’t mesh at all. I either read this as a self-conscious novel whose text’s internal stability is self-destroying, and so Sandra Dorn is not “real” to me and her “problems” are as irrelevant as Tom & Jerry; or I read it as a realist drama of intense pain, and so self-consciousness is just interfering with my attempt at believing in Sandra Dorn and transferring her problems into me, at seeing the world through her eyes.

Likewise, she’s upfront about the late addition of the fantastical aspects which struck me as shoehorned as the self-conscious tidbits: “But I did not in fact have any of it in mind when I first conceived the project.” What was originally on her mind was “violence—both literal violence and more abstract kinds, specifically the violence language and culture do to bodies, and how these forces make some kinds of bodies invisible, or at least unviable as objects/subjects of interest (or protagonists).” This hardly feels like the mental place whence came such early whimsical fabulations as Giles Goat-Boy and Nights at the Circus.

She’s mentioned Federman as one of the creative writing teachers who most impacted her, but she reminded me of his FC2 colleague, Sukenick. In Up, Ronnie and a friend have a conversation about the role of art, with his friend defending the traditional view:

   ‘Well that’s what art is all about, right? The discovery of reality.’

   ‘No. the invention of reality.’

   ‘You mean to say that a perfect description of a rose isn’t in some sense a discovery of reality?’

   ‘No. I mean it isn’t art. We aren’t botanists. Art seeks a vital connection with the world that, to stay alive, must be constantly reinvented to correspond with our truest feelings.’

For the fictional Ronnie and for the factual Sukenick, art doesn’t represent, it creates. “I consider fiction the main reality-making art”, he said in an interview. In the final pages Ronnie also adds that art doesn’t achieve anything:

Look, encourage your friends to buy this book, no kidding. I never made a cent off writing, they could throw it away worse places. Or perhaps you aren’t interested in this variety of personal confession. That’s not our problem, tell us a story. Or maybe you’ve begun to notice certain discrepancies, speaking of the story. I thought you weren’t married, I thought your parents were dead. Very sharp. Very perceptive. Well this is just to let you know that I have my secrets too, ladies and gents. I’m not an exponent of indecent public exposure. You want to find out about my personal life give me a ring I’m in the book. I have nothing better to do than make intimate revelations to the idly curious, tourists of my soul. I’m going to finish this today, the hell with it. I’ve had enough of this. I’m just playing with words anyway, what did you think I was doing?

With this move, Sukenick denies the ontology of what we just read; he confesses he just made stuff up. This liberates him from any obligation to deal with “serious” stuff like the sex drive of crones, since his characters are mere rhetorical devices. As a character tells Ronnie, “Don’t fend me off with jokes. That’s just the trouble. You treat people as comic characters. You refuse to see their anguish. You don’t take anyone seriously but yourself.” But even this charge is half-hearted because his detractor is just a puppet manipulated by the godlike Ronnie who retains control over the book he’s inserted himself into.  It’s this self-destruction of the novel, this going all the way past the mimetic fraud, that makes novels like Up still so savage and powerful, whereas Remainder and Ire Land are so lackluster and lukewarm when they presume to undermine realism, titillating us with the unreality of the narrative while all along vying for the respectability conferred upon them by the solemnity of verisimilitude they never fully reject.

This leads to neurotic behavior, to writers frozen in a crossroads, wanting to go one way but feeling impelled towards another. I admire novels like Up, I understand what Sukenick was doing and why it had to be done then; I love his cynicism, it was tremendously liberating and relieving to claim that novels meant nothing after they had been coopted as a trite political tool for social change that at best produced rubbish pamphlets. Many of the humanists who hid behind the social realist novel were grave phonies who went to their graves thinking Stalin was a saint. With all the scandals in Utopia Avenue taking place when Sukenick was coming of age, truly surprising would’ve been if he hadn’t exorcised this exterior holiness with cynicism, glibness, mockery and contempt for good intentions. It’s no surprising that the expression “selling out” so often shows up in the books of the generation Sukenick, Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon belonged to: the world seemed devoid of value to them and the writer’s defense against the siren of hypocrisy was self-irony and formalism bordering on inhumanity.

But I also wish novelists put behind them this cynicism which, like Duchamp’s pissoir, is a joke that loses another ha ha with every repetition. Sheffield could have made a meaningful novel that takes itself seriously and avoids the deathtrap of self-consciousness, but her phthartic fidelity to Federman and the FC2 tenets reveals the pitfalls of worrying about the realist/avant garde antinomy. More than fitting categories, I want novels to reach their full potential, and I don’t have doubts that Ire Land would have fared better if it had only accepted reconciled itself with its realist core.

Sadly, this tiresome game is sanctioned by others by pretending there are enough chips to make it playable. For instance, an interviewer remarked: “You also distance the reader in your arrangement of dialogue. Rather than use conventional quotation marks and dialogue tags, narrators like Sandra mediate all conversations, so readers can doubt whether they are receiving an accurate record of characters’ speech.” I’m so benumbed by the omnipresence of this technique that I didn’t even realize this was another way of making me doubt the narrative. But at this point in the history of the novel why should anyone automatically assume that absence of punctuation means subjectivity? Proper usage has been so relentlessly destroyed that acts of deviation don’t mean anything anymore in themselves. Gass and Cormac McCarthy don’t use quotation marks and dialogue tags even in novels in the third person; for that matter, neither does Rooney. I had no idea I was supposed to doubt the ontology of the speakers in Normal People. Yay for the avant-garde?

“Voice is a long standing interest of mine,” said Sheffield in the interview:

I’m also interested in a language and perspective that doesn’t efface itself in service of “story,” or what Jaimey Gordon calls the “Big I,” and at the same time, the disclosure/confession that hides as it reveals. An egoistic bid for attention entwined with fear, a wanting to communicate (and commune) as well as a self preserving need to hold back. So I think of those additional layers of commentary/voices as the friend (or frenemy) just beyond reach. Each speaks to the desire of the primary voice to break out of its solipsism, and also to its dread of what might be on the other side of the bars (loss of face, loss of self).

I love voice, voice is my not secret at all vice. And Peitho knows we could have more of it in contemporary fiction. Unfortunately, Sheffield thinks that a voice that doesn’t efface itself is inextricable from one that doesn’t imperil the ontological credibility of the narration. But Angela Carter did voice without filling the tale with doubt. I never doubted Fevvers in Nights at the Circus and Dora in Wise Children in spite of their phrasal flamboyance. Stanley Elkin had a distinctive voice without damaging mimetic illusion; in fact he was critical of Barth when he moved into self-conscious contrivances. I fear that because of stylists like Nabokov we’ve come to see a “fancy style” as the first step on a mandatory staircase to total unreliability. I don’t see why that has to be. That happened because Nabokov loved the theme of unreliability; even if he had written as sparsely as Hemingway he’d have found a way to conjure pranksters and fakes because that’s how his mind worked.

Dorn’s voice is interesting not because it’s fancy (it’s not) or because it refuses self-effacing (it’s not that showy either), but because its speaker is unusual. Sheffield is right, aging women past their good looks narrating their last attempts at sex life aren’t commonly found in fiction, and that by itself gives her an advantage over blander narrators. I see no need to obstruct the clarity of such an interesting predicament with metafictional techniques that make us question its own validity. It doesn’t help when the annotations refer to “Sandra’s inability to recognize any external reality outside herself.”

Again, a comparison with Up is in order:

“Teach them to enjoy rape. It’s simple Pavlov, reward and punishment. Once you cultivate that craving you got them hooked sweetheart. The volupté of masochism, the itch for total subjection. Forced prostitution, naked girls kissing swastikas in Nazi slave brothels. A thirst for cruelty, betrayal, a taste for violence. I once got this girl to where she liked masturbating with a loaded pistol. Loathsome but beautiful. You get the scene baby? Now that’s what sells a novel.”

It must have been true because Up came out one year before Portnoy’s Complaint, and five before Gravity’s Rainbow, which shows all the Nazi BDSM sex that we’re entitled to and in technicolor that Up only teases us with. Both were bestsellers. Again, I understand why fifty years ago writing sex outrageously meant being as gruesome, crude and inhuman as if the authors had taken dating lessons from Fansadox comics (google at your own peril); but nowadays we’re so desensitized by violent porn that focuses on young women as gratifying objects instead of individuals seeking pleasure in their own right, that Ire Land actually risks being original, uncomfortable and risky for showing nothing more ordinary than an old woman looking for a partner to have a normal fuck with. Here’s a scene when she’s already tipsy at a party:

“Improbably I felt a pressure, a weight that wasn’t just the dog. I closed my eyes and let it sink there, the sensory deception of some long ago head it didn’t matter whose or what sort of hair I’d clenched in my fists short plush bristles, long smooth locks, wooly clumps of curls, even none at all just warm shaved skin curved beneath my encouraging palms it didn’t matter whose head it was butting my pubis tongue knotting knotting my clit tighter tighter it didn’t matter whose head whose head was between my legs.

In the next instant it’s suggested that a friend catches her masturbating. This belongs to the province of the realist novel; it’s also entertaining and captivating. She draws sympathy from the way her sexuality and her self-sabotaging perform together an awkward, wayward waltz. Like a character says of: “Even now, she can be amusing. But she’s been her own greatest foe, every step of the way.” After making a fool of herself at a party for throwing a tantrum at a child, she shares her vulnerability to Maeve:

“Oh, I’ve been bad, I admit it, and now I’ve reached a place where there are no returns. After certain incidents, there is no going back. Not enough years remain to undo what’s been done, to unsay what’s been said. At my age, there is no temporal wiggle room in which to assemble a new household out of friends, as you wrote in your post last week, after you left home to get away from [your] begetter’s heterosexist bull shite.”

Jobless, her last “intimates” tethering her to routine are Conrad and Ormondo, “and I won’t find any others. I have lost every means – looks, charm, money, professional influence, not to mention a domicile – necessary to collect a new household of friends, at least the salaried, credit holding kind (though I suppose if I were to remain in this city, I would eventually find a new circle beneath the 1-25 underpass).”

Temporarily her sister Irene takes her in in her cabin in the wilderness. Being younger, she looks up to her because she inspired her own yearning for independence the day Sandra left her daughter Kew with Irene and disappeared only to come back in a seedy state:

“And you smelled. You stunk like you’d been in bed for a week, and not alone. I wanted to stink like that too. Or not. I wanted that freedom, to fuck someone for days on end, or to just be alone with myself. So I built this place, and when I wasn’t fucking, I was writing my books. It was great, and now I’ve got Kristal.”

Whereas Irene got a room of her own, Sandra is on a roam on her own since she keeps fleeing the crisis scene after messing things up. First her bumbling behavior at the party, then after losing a place to live she consciously contrives to stir trouble between Irene and her young girlfriend, Kristal, who leaves. Shortly afterwards, Sandra leaves too, having burned another bridge with her little sis, moving on to burn the next one with her brother Johnny.

Tragically, she’s running away from her own crone condition, which she refuses to accept:

“What is their domain? I have no sway anymore, over anyone or anything, least of all, myself. Muscles and ligaments atrophying, bones attenuating, skin slackening, aplomb slipping, restraint cracking – self governance grows shakier by the day. If you could just see me here in my efficiency unit at the Lincoln Log Motel, heaped all alone on the bed (I liked about Beryl or Darryl, a pornographic attempt to sound less pathetic): it is assisted living at best. You would never guess at the autonomy that was once mine. That I could, for instance, make myself come, or not, on a dime. Make myself, or for that matter anyone else – as if I commanded some kind of secret joystick or jubilee button that could, with a simple flick of the wrist or press of the finger, electrify the entire soma.”

When she tells Maeve about her first marriage, to one Kevin from Belfast, she makes it clear that their initial idyll came to an end when he became idle in bed. The sex stops once her pregnancy makes Kevin see themselves as father and mother, asexual beings. It’s his decisions but it’s her body so she uses it to seduce a friend of his, Andy:

“Now, looking at mongrel Andy slumped sideways in a chair, his gaze no longer directed toward the ceiling, but down at his own bare feet, I wondered. He was clearly uncomfortable with me – yet the smell of sex was on him, as pungent as his socks. I bustled around, filling the electric kettle with water for tea, putting out a plate of McVities, using my bulk as a kind of reassurance, as an evocation of everywoman (mother, sister, daughter, wife), an abstraction of feminine succor sanitized of all personal stink. Despite a capacity for raunch that was surely greater than his own and Kevin’s combined.”

She proves this braggadocio by taking agency over the seduction of Andy in their own house. This leads to many interesting details that sadly novels by men tend to leave out. For instance, how’s the logistics of sex positions during pregnancy?

“At almost eight months, counting the days, the positions open to me were few. In fact, given my great and tender girth, there was only one, so that now I was the dog, forearms and shins firmly planted into the mattress, my rump in the air. Even now, decades later, I can remember that first thrust, that searing leap that sent seismic waves roiling in my groin, though such was the kid’s finesse (perfected, he later told me, during his stretch in London town), that I didn’t actually come until he began pumping his muck inside me, panting, I’m sinkin’, I’m sinkin’, I’m sinkin’… I’m sunk.”

Andy becomes a regular. Gripping situational comedy arises from this. Sandra’s waters break while they’re fucking, leading to get out of there immediately but not without calling someone to take her to the hospital. Because of this action Kevin learns that he was around and confronts her. She doesn’t allay his suspicions, she glories in her cheating: “Instead, I said, yeah, the kid was coming over every day, fucking my brains out.” Wounded, Kevin goes out looking for him and ends up dying by accident, another victim of the Troubles. This grotesque comedy could have filled chapters, but sadly throughout most of the book Sheffield prefers to rush synthesis to developing, so Sandra fucks Andy, gives birth to a baby, her husband finds out the affair and gets killed all in the span of four pages. What a waste of wattage in too speedy a novel.

Sheffield can’t seem to remain prolongedly interested in the province of the realist novel, even if produces drama far more interesting than murky mysterious footnotes and hints at fairies and animal metamorphosis. This causes other problems. In an essay about the genesis of the novel, she makes it clear that unlike the self-conscious authors of yore who started from fiction into fiction to dismantle the medium from within starts from the polis:

“When I started envisioning the territory of this novel, circa 2013, I was thinking about violence. Literal violence, as in the Sandy Hook and Aurora theater shootings, of a sort that always seemed to be perpetrated by white males. I was also thinking about anger, the simmering grievances and resentments in the various pockets of American culture, and the links between anger and violence.”

This would have been nothing but tedious to Barth and Nabokov. “I have said – and many other contemporary writers agree and have said the same thing – that there’s no such thing as reality, only fiction”, said Federman. But instead of living in the luxury suite on the topmost floor of the Ivory Tower, Sheffield is attuned like a realist to main street, aware that a “new (or reawakened), potentially explosive force was stirring in the inequalities of the economic recovery and the factionalism of identity politics. Poor and not so poor white people were starting to feel corralled and cut off from opportunity in a way that they had not before.” This is relevant since Dorn is out of job and friends and is carelessly destroying the lasting safety nets her brothers spread under her, if only she weren’t so eager to jump through it like a knife into a chest. She has a “pasty white working class background”, she pulled “herself up the socio-economic ladder with an advanced education”, something Sheffield recognizes “is much harder to do now than it was back in the 1970s and 1980s for anyone without influence or affluence”, and she’s in a downward spiral “due in part to self-destructive choices, but also due to larger political and financial forces undermining the prosperity of working and middle class Americans everywhere.” Holy Babbitt!

The problem is that she doesn’t do more than pay lip service to it; in fact I think I gleaned more info about Dorn’s socio-economic background from the essay than from the novel itself, as if it were one of those meretricious modern paintings that require a text next to them to explain the painter’s point. The novel by itself left me clueless about what the author thinks is undermining the prosperity of the working and middle class. It’s in this schism that the deleterious war between realism and the avant-garde, still so alive in America, wreaks its consequences. I doubt a person who spent her career associated with the FC2 could possibly conceive fiction from a different perspective; the FC2 came into existence because major publishers bought conventional social realists in detriment of Sukenick and Federman. But the social analysis of America Sheffield proposes requires precisely its dreaded sociological method, except avant-garde sophisticates don’t stoop to sociology.

Despite the Victorian triple decker’s infamous padding, there was a reason why 19th-century novels were bulky even in countries that didn’t pay the writer by the word. In writing duration is length and worldbuilding requires width. It’s very hard for a novel shy of 200 pages in which most time is taken up in the protagonist’s relations with relatives to really delve in the millimeter-by-millimeter meltdown of a woman’s academic career. In screenwriting fashion, Sheffield enters the scene late and leaves it early. It also doesn’t help that the epistolary structure closes off the panorama, for since Dorn is the only one in the spotlight and everyone else is subordinated to her subjectivity, very little worldbuilding is necessary to anchor her rants about aging. There was also a good reason why most 19th-century novels were told in the third person, it made a panoramic view of society easier, it allowed swifter changes of perspective, it built plurality into a totality, a useful if not inevitable technique if you’re really committed to chronicling the “larger political and financial forces undermining the prosperity of working and middle class Americans everywhere.” I’m afraid a handful of emails by a self-centered crone doesn’t qualify as “everywhere”.

Being an academic herself, Sheffield probably has experience about the specifics of how academic careers end badly, that rich firsthand experience that made Zola go down mine shafts to educate himself on the obscure milieu he was going to report back to the tribe. She could probably fashion a pretty long drama out of it, but then she wouldn’t have an avant-garde novel, she’d have, I don’t know, The Human Stain (she could only count herself that lucky). Or she’d write one of those “frescos of the age” novels that sophisticates roll their eyes at. Heck, why beat it around the bush – she’d have a Jonathan Franzen novel, but who after studying with Federman would want that macula in her resumé?

Scornful of details, she gives us the aftermath of the tumble, when the drama is at its highest pitch and disaster seems all but avoidable. We enter late to meet a jobless and houseless Sandra Dorn and leave before we know the circumstances of her disappearance. Besides an epistolary novel, this is a picaro, a series of self-contained episodes afraid of slowing down. How burdensome her job was and how it clogged her artistic vein, how it occupied her life, how it gave her stability and why losing it is so damaging; what it actually means to be a middle class educated woman who suddenly has no one to rely on – this is ideal stuff for drama, but since Sheffield doesn’t linger on any of it I guess they’re just more mysteries to add to useless mysteries like whether or not McLaughin is Malarkey or maybe even Dorn herself, gee whiz; and whether or not the fairies after whether or not turning her into a hare whether or not absconded her to whateverland.

I wonder if we haven’t reached a time when novelists suffer from a labor illiteracy, an inability to render jobs dramatically on the page, an aversion to showing their minute details in their day-to-day place, the stuff that Zola and Dickens nailed perfectly: they knew trades from the inside out, what tools were used, how things were manufactured, how raw matter became goods and services and how these were converted into money, how human exploitation factored into it and who gained and who didn’t. When social realists reached the height of their popularity in the 1930s, they described with gusto the logistics of jobs. They knew how proletarians and farmers lived, they knew how to describe factory work, fields for plowing, slums. They knew the names of the individual tasks that compose a production line, they knew the tools’ names and what they were for, they could guide us through the process every step of the way. Loving shoptalk and admiring anyone who can name the proper names of things, this is a tool in the old realist’s kit that I envy them for not having it in mine.

How much this skill has deteriorated can be gleaned from Sheffield’s inability to make me experience what Dorn’s job feels like, to even find words to describe it. Her concern for the wellbeing of the polis, when she moves from essay to novel, remains abstract, something to reference because it’s trending right now. I don’t think writers need to respond to their times by documenting the timely issues of the day; but it’s a phenomenon worth reflecting about that writers who do go out of their way to show so much concern for the state of the polis can’t then inscribe those issues in a book that was supposedly instigated by them.

Dorn’s labor emptiness stands in marked contrast to Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity, a book as steeped in the profession of a district attorney as Zola was invested in workers with dirty hands. Not by accident A Naked Singularity is gigantic, an 800 pager, much the same way William Gaddis needed 700 pages to excoriate Wall Street in J R and 500 to show the madness of litigating America in A Frolic of His Own. These are two writers who, like Sheffield, publicly worried about the polis’ socio-economic situation, except they realized they couldn’t do that by playing avant-garde, so they opted for forms quite conservative, even Dickensian.

With its not even 200 pages and a narrator whining into the void, Ire Land resembles instead the structure of existentialist 1940s and 1950s novels: stuff like The Outsider and The Fall, and Beckett’s monologists. Usually short novels built around a single voice that hogged the narrative and imposed on it a subjectivity bordering on solipsism, treating other entities as fleeting shadows in a hazy, subdued world narrated in an attitude that relishes the sleep of muteness. I’m pretty sure that no one in the entire history of literary studies ever turned to a Beckett novel to gain insight into the conditions of the working class. De La Pava and Gaddis also love voice, except they put multiple voices in constant duel, theirs are polyphonic cathedrals, and from their rituals emerge a fully-formed meaningful world composed of many different class strata. Ire Land is just built around a few episodes: a party that goes wrong; a few spats with her sister, Irene; a shooting of a movie at her brother’s place, forced into condensation, if not a condescension that marks the rushed tone they’re done away with.

I don’t think this is a very good novel, but I have an even worse insult: the author Elisabeth Sheffield is far more interesting than the novel she wrote, and that’s deplorable. She’s a curious case study of how to sabotage a potentially good novel. First of all there’s a schism between what she publicly claims to have been her motivation and what she actually executed. It’s also interesting to see her alleged interest in the “larger political and financial forces undermining the prosperity of working and middle class Americans everywhere” rebound against the redoubt of theory that instills in her contempt for so earthly a topic. I’d be amazed at a writer who after being brought up on post-structuralism and whose first two names she mentions in another interview are Barthes and Blanchot could really care. What I took from Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero was that, besides loathing showy prose, he despised French social realists like Roger Garaudy. The only novelists of his time that I’ve seen him promote were Alain Robbe-Grillet, who scoffed at novels as carriers of meaning, and his Tel Quel accomplice Philippe Sollers. I’m reminded of Mario Vargas Llosa’s reticence about Barthes back then. Although he jazzed his novels up with modernist techniques, Vargas Llosa is a Flaubertian at heart, a realist close to his country’s reality, a former candidate to Peru’s presidency, and in his prime a mischievous troublemaker who made headlines for breaking social taboos and writing knowingly about brothels, seedy journalists, bodyguards and drivers, cops, military cadets and military hierarchies. As such he was suspicious of a creative critic like Barthes whose weakness was his formalism, his creed about considering “writing an autonomy reality”: “To explain literature solely on the level of writing is to mutilate the literary phenomenon, to reduce it to something schematic”, he told Ricardo Cano Gaviria in El Buitre y el Ave Fénix. I love autonomous verbal worlds when they’re made by competent writers like Nabokov and Barth, who nevertheless never lost sight of the human.

But Barthes’ and Blanchot’s theory is predicated on hostility against novels about the working and middle class since they’re strongly anti-discursive and anti-representational; from them you learn precisely to worship the self-conscious toolkit that helps to undermine the viability of the novel to even portray and communicate the conditions of others. I must admit that my time reading Tel Quel novels didn’t enrich me with a deeper appreciation for French socio-economics. But as a believer in Theory, Sheffield is suspicious of language. Language isn’t something we use to communicate, it’s something that controls us and imposes structures upon us. We must tear it apart, destroy it, mock it. The useful lessons of Tel Quel. As she says in her essay, through the study of Joyce and Beckett she arrived at “rage—rage at being bound up in a body, rage at the inadequacy of language, even as language serves all too well to bind.” Ah yes, using language to postulate the inadequacy of language, the third favorite hobby of ‘60s intellectual after whitewashing the Soviet Union’s crimes (first) and coming back from Mao’s China in a state of bliss (second). Because what helped Zola in bringing to powerful vivacity the “pasty white working class background” was his agreeing after leaving Professor Barthes’ classroom that all language is fascist. Yep, that’s the exact frame of mind needed to show the “larger political and financial forces undermining the prosperity of working and middle class Americans everywhere”. It worked so well for Sollers, his body of work is a masterful chronicle of the French working and middle class of the past 60 years, the painstakingly observed Human Comedy of our times, there’s volume thirty-two about political corruption called, uh, wait, but there’s that remarkably Zolaesque novel about EU funds to pay for dummy public-private partnerships that end up in offshore accounts called, er, well, maybe not, but there’s that incredible paradigm of verism about the French Socialist Party’s slow loss of its base to Le Pen’s populism called, let me open the French wiki, oh, there isn’t any. But hey, at least the guy writes entire novels without commas, so hooray to the avant-garde.

I think there’s a connection between theory and Sheffield, feebly nostalgic about the big old important social realist novel, but nevertheless conceptually deterred from pursuing it by too many textbooks. In its dithering between two modes, Ire Land encapsulates the paralyzing dilemma of a segment of talented but dilacerated writers who can’t heal the conflict between resuming their role as reporters and sociologists and continuing the inheritance of Beckett, Nabokov, Federman that points to the destruction and mockery of those roles. I don’t have a problem with either path, but harmonizing them is tricky and when they’re forced to blend in the absence of talent to pull it off the result is an indigestible paste the author thinks is tasty altogether. It’s not that I wish Sheffield had written the novel I wanted; her own public words about the making of and intentions behind it exhume from inside this overlapping hodgepodge traces of another possibility, many pages haunted by the ghost of a novel that could have been more emotionally interesting, one Sheffield herself alludes to in her essay. Instead of rooting for one side in the realist-avant-garde war, I cheer when a novelist delivers the best possible work. In this particular case, I think that would have been achieved with a formally conservative container of an interesting and unusual protagonist that we seldom see in fiction and whose voice could have travelled longer if Sheffield hadn’t courted self-implosion.