A dissatisfaction


Tim Parks is trapped inside the novel.

I wonder how many people share the experience described by David Shields in Reality Hunger, of tackling some large novel, a work essentially conventional in its structure and brand of realism, that weaves together the lives of its characters over a number of years, and simply feeling that the whole exercise has become largely irrelevant. Shields doesn’t present his remarks as a criticism of writers — the name he mentions is Jonathan Franzen — pursuing the tradition of the long realistic novel. Rather, he suggests it is a change in himself, something he believes has been brought about by the utterly changed nature of contemporary life. He considers the variety of electronic media — the proliferation and abbreviation of all forms of messages, the circumstances created by the ever more rapid transit and greater abundance of information, the emergence of a powerful virtual world that becomes more real to us all the time — and he concludes that given this way of life it is hard for the traditional kind of novel to hold our attention. He then looks at a variety of texts that, unlike the traditional novel, weld together chunks of “reality,” pieces of documentary taken from elsewhere, quotations, fragments, provocations, moments of lyricism, and melodrama, perhaps from film or television, newspapers or websites, to create an entirely different reading experience.

I share Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels. More and more I wonder if it is possible for a novel not to give me the immediate impression of being manipulated toward goals that are predictable and unquestioned: the dilemma, the dramatic crisis, the pathos, the wise sadness, and more in general a suffering made bearable, or even noble through aesthetic form, fine prose, and the conviction that one has lived through something important. But to go from that to fragmented, rapidly intercut chunks of “reality,” however powerfully they may evoke certain aspects of contemporary living, doesn’t work for me, nor do I entirely agree with Shields’ analysis, however strongly and passionately he makes his case.