Imitation Modernism: An Interview with Perry Meisel
by Katie Da Cunha Lewin
What are the concerns of the contemporary novel?
The contemporary novel seems to me to have three directions. First, a conventional one that is both popular and critically praised - the familiar novel of psychological inwardness, an inheritance from High Modernism, whose protocols have become conventionalized, together with a return to the generic plot structures of the kind of realist fiction High Modernism presumably superseded. I have in mind Paul Auster, Jennifer Egan, and even Jonathan Franzen, for whom the plight of characters is as a rule heightened by a pathos that is a given precondition of this sentimentalization of modernist inwardness, which is as a rule quite brutal, from Dostoyevsky and James to Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner, and even Hemingway. What is successful about this kind of fiction is also what is problematic about it. It has institutionalized what was in the first instance something very new. But if James and Dostoyevsky and their High Modernist heirs taught writers to go within, today's imitation modernists, as I like to call them, assume that everyone not only goes within but stays within, all the time.
While in Woolf or Joyce inwardness always mixes with sociality, in imitation modernism it does not. This kind of irony was not lost on Katherine Mansfield, probably the most influential single High Modernist, however cloaked her influence still remains. Mansfield's assumption that everyone is a narcissist, preoccupied not only by death but by shopping and one's household, is shockingly prescient, and well ahead of the notion that in James, or Dostoyevsky, only the noble or the special among us suffer. This, too, is a misreading of early and High Modernism alike - many of James's characters are, ultimately, run-of-the-mill charlatans, while Woolf and, especially, Joyce and Faulkner assume that everyone suffers from within from the smallest as well as the largest social slights. To use a term from Marxist theory, they suffer from the imbrications of hegemonic expectation inscribed in subjects unconsciously and constitutively. Contemporary or imitation modernism has replicated the look but not the real performance of early and High Modernism alike.
Second, the fantastical mode. Here I have in mind, not the work of magic realists like Garcia-Marquez or even Manuel Puig - still vivid enough to be considered contemporaries - but what I will call members of the School of Barthelme, notably Ben Marcus, for whom word play and the construction of imaginary kingdoms on the basis of familiar tropes taken in new and unlikely directions is enormously successful, if a bit beside the point. The formal achievement alone is impressive. This is, however - like Barthelme himself - a mode with no egress. Fiction's formal beauty is one of the last things this socially oriented mode of discourse can rely upon as fit meat for survival. I should note here, too, that a writer like Will Self combines, as does, in a less obvious way, Nicholson Baker, psychological inwardness with an extraordinarily playful, almost Barthelmean sense of language, a combination that saves both from the problems of this mode in its pure form and that elevates each to the more recognizably achieved status readers and critics have granted them both.
Third, what I will call media fiction. This is the most promising new direction for fiction, though it is only just opening despite the many cultural pressures that make it an inevitability. David Foster Wallace, in a 1993 essay, ‘E Unum Pluribus,’ called for a ‘literature of the image,’ one based in media apart from fiction like television. Among the chief influences on young writers, truth demands that new media be given a place in fictional representation. While Wallace - a better critic than novelist - never wrote this kind of fiction, others have begun to, notably Jay Cantor, whose Krazy Kat takes a cartoon character as its focus; Mark Jacobson, whose Gojiro does the same with the Japanese movie monster; and Tao Lin, whose Shoplifting from American Apparel explores the way fashion - another popular, and visual, medium - usurps the stage of what contemporary reality is. Like Taipei, his novel employing Google Chat, which explores the incursion of social media into our daily discursive universe, this kind of media fiction is not fiction about fiction in the old ‘metafictional’ sense - a story about a story - but is itself realist in the strictest sense: These presumably ‘other’ or distinct media are in fact the very stuff of the real. Dr Johnson’s original sense of the novel's specificity - that it represents the real languages of life by participating in them - is reinvented here. Representing media is, in the classic Johnsonian sense, the representation of the way we live now. It is, ironically, imitation psychological modernism that is, by contrast, metafiction in the weak sense - a story about a story of isolated inner space once told and now no longer alive because no longer true.
Who do you consider to be the most important writer who is still writing currently?
It is always unwise to designate a writer who is ‘the most important,’ especially today. This is because literary importance - canonicity is the dirty word for it - is a function of influence. And, as you can see from what I've said about the contemporary practice of fiction, these influences have now accumulated to the point of an overdetermination unparalleled in the prior history of the novel. To be sure, Jane Austen and the Brontës chart different courses for later nineteenth-century fiction, but, then again, the Brontës may be seen as a response to Austen, and Hardy as a response to the Brontës. This kind of dialectical clarity, however, is missing today because the influence of modernism has been so diffuse, as shown by the three very different paths of contemporary writing I've outlined above.
Still, three novelists remain influential, one recently deceased, and the other two now gray-beards. I have in mind, of course, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Norman Mailer. Mailer's became media fiction when he began the New Journalistic side of his career with The Armies of the Night and his belief that history is itself the stuff of fiction, and vice versa. Pynchon gave us the rock and roll sentence - still largely unused - and Reed an equally musicalized kind of prose that combines the rhythms of soul and jazz with the argot, both high-literary and slang, that lie behind their enunciative patterns. Nonetheless, we have moved beyond that moment in literary history in which dialectical movement can be seen or traced from one major writer to another. Despite their importance, all three of these writers seem, for the time being at least, left unused by our contemporaries. Even Salinger, the most academically neglected of important writers, remains neglected in fictional influence because he finds his influence in New Journalism rather than in fiction proper.
As you know from conversations we have had, I am very dubious about some aspects of postmodernism and its stultifying effect on metafictional studies. How do you see postmodernism as functioning in critical theory?
Postmodernism is now a clear and delimited historical category. Whether Robbe-Grillet, Borges, or Barthelme, its goals were to call attention to the frames in which we read and to foreground them. Whether Wallace, Marcus, or Cantor, this is no longer what fiction does, even at its most extreme. Typically, metafiction is a word synonymous with the kind of postmodernism I have already described. As for its relation to theory, that is self-evident. This is also why noting the similarities between classic postmodernism and structuralism and deconstruction goes without saying, and deserves a passing remark of general assumption rather than the whole books that have been unnecessarily devoted to it.
What aspect of structuralism needs further exploration in critical work?
There seem to me to be no further routes structuralism and its heirs - deconstruction in particular - have to take. We now have a wonderfully synthetic method for literary study, and for discursive study in general. All the new, or supposedly new, approaches, from the New Historicism to archive studies, environmental criticism, gender studies, queer theory, the new lyric theory, surface reading, and distant reading are spins on structuralism, like it or not. Surface reading, for example, is simply Barthes in ‘From Work to Text.’ Distant reading is simply Foucault's The Order of Things. Archive studies is simply a combination of Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge and Derrida's Archive Fever.
As for gender studies and queer theory, they are all Freud, Lacan, and Klein. Postcolonialist theory seems to me the sole instance of a reasonably fresh conceptual development, though in its origins, it, too, is the function of Edward Said's use of classic theory - in this case Lacan - to clarify the nature of an ideological configuration regarding otherness as constitutive of psychological subjectivity in an overtly political way. Said is, of course, prefigured here by Fanon, and polished by Homi Bhabha and Paul Gilroy. This said, one should also note that we would be nowhere today without the work of Althusser and Raymond Williams, who accomplished in theoretical terms what the media novelists have accomplished later on in fiction - seeing how constitutive ideological formations are in the construction of the unconscious. These New Left theoreticians saw how, in a reversal of classical Marxism, base doesn't simply determine superstructure. Superstructure also determines base or infrastructure by creating states of mind that allow - or disallow - the means of production of goods and social services to be sustained.