It seems that every six months we’re forced to endure yet another report on the Death of the Novel, or Failure of the Novel, or the Shrinking Audience for the Novel, or—conversely but not coincidentally—the Rise of Nonfiction. As such, we shouldn’t be irked by these reports, any more than we should be irked by the way, every six months, we’re told to Fall Back or Spring Forward. We know every six months we’re going to lose an hour we need, or gain one we don’t, just as every six months we know we’re going to be told that nonfiction is ascendant because it is timely and fiction obsolete because it isn’t. At this late date in literary history, we know such an argument—always presented as though this claim is being made for the very first time and is Big News—is coming, and we should be ready for it, and be ready to ignore it. In other words, we (the readers and writers of fiction) should grow up—if by grow up we mean give up—and not be irked.
Nevertheless, we are irked—irked because of the predictability of these reports, irked because they are written by people who know (or claim to know) what literature can do, who claim to be experts on the subject of Why People Read and Write Books, and yet who, somehow and repeatedly, seem to completely miss the point, who don’t understand why someone might go to nonfiction for one thing, to fiction for another. The problem is not that the different genres might do different things, serve different needs, have different goals, provoke different reactions in their readers; the problem is that suggesting fiction should be more like nonfiction—needs to be more like nonfiction—diminishes both genres, making our literary world a lesser place.
The most recent Sorry State of Fiction address is Rachel Donadio’s essay in the New York Times Book Review, “Truth Is Stronger than Fiction.” The title itself gives one pause, for what Donadio is talking about, of course, is not truth in a court-of-law-or-God sense, but books, and what can it mean for a book to be strong? (One pictures the lamest booth at the fair, with novels struggling to raise the big hammer, to hit the lever, to ring the bell, while the muscular nonfiction books stand to the side in their strongman singlets, holding their already-won stuffed animals, flexing, asking the tube-topped girls passing by if they’d like to feel their biceps.) But really, there is nothing in Donadio’s essay that we haven’t read before; or, to be more specific, nothing we didn’t read sixteen years ago; or, to be more specific, nothing that we didn’t read in Tom Wolfe’s 1989 essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in which Tom Wolfe demanded that fiction writers write like Tom Wolfe, or else. Or else what? you might ask. A good, enduring question, it turns out, and the answer can be found in Donadio’s essay: or else people will keep talking about the same subject in the same way, using the same rhetoric, until we figure out what exactly is being said here, and why people keep saying it, and how we might get them to stop.
First off, it might be useful to know what it means to write like Tom Wolfe. It means to write a big, realistic novel. We know this not only because this is the only kind of novel Tom Wolfe writes (his three novels—The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons—might not be inducted into the literary canon, but they certainly will be given a prominent place in the Doorstop Hall of Fame), but also because he uses the phrase “big realistic novel” repeatedly in his essay, size being to Wolfe’s essay what strength is to Donadio’s. And as Wolfe makes clear, a writer needs to be big and strong because a real writer is more warrior than artist: “At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.” According to Wolfe, once we have mounted our steeds, we should turn to journalists for our riding lessons: “The answer is not to leave the rude beast, the material, also known as the life around us, to the journalists, but to do what journalists do, or are supposed to do, which is to wrestle the beast and bring it to terms.” Or, if there aren’t any journalists on hand, we (meaning literary novelists—that is what I mean, and that is what Wolfe means as well) should look to writers of popular fiction, who “have one enormous advantage over their more literary confreres. They are not only willing to wrestle the beast; they actually love the battle.”
The hilarity here is high (one imagines Wolfe in his famous white suit wrestling and defeating a beast—any beast will do—and one feels sorry for the poor beast, too, who no doubt entered the wrestling match thinking he was about to do battle with a mere writer of literary fiction and not Tom Wolfe), but to be fair, the metaphors of the hunt, the battle, are merely goofy and shouldn’t concern us overmuch, except that we’re still using them, and we’re also still repeating Wolfe’s dire warning from seventeen years ago: “If fiction writers do not start facing the obvious, the literary history of the second half of the twentieth century will record that journalists not only took over the richness of American life as their domain, but also seized the high ground of literature itself.”
The question of whether or not journalists have “seized the high ground of literature itself” aside, that verb—“seized”—is a significant one, in part because Donadio uses a similar verb in her essay. Her essay’s first sentence, for instance, aligns itself with V. S. Naipaul in claiming that “nonfiction is better suited than fiction to capture the complexities of today’s world” (emphasis mine). Later in the essay, Donadio repeats that “To date, no work of fiction has perfectly captured our historical moment” (emphasis mine). What we’re meant to learn through Donadio’s use of capture is that literature at its best doesn’t evoke its subjects, or create them, or transform them, or render them, or distort them, or reinvent them, but rather captures them, as though they were enemy soldiers or Wolfe’s beast. This is not so—in fact, the idea that fiction can or should “capture our historical moment” betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what fiction can do to and with the world, and what the world does to it. But it is a useful misunderstanding, and we should be grateful for it, and for Donadio’s use of the word capture, too, because if, as both Donadio and Wolfe claim, one of nonfiction’s unique capacities is to capture our historical moment (I have doubts that this is so, but so many nonfiction writers insist upon it that I’m just going to go ahead and agree with them), then Donadio’s use of capture lets us know precisely how far afield the tools and goals of nonfiction have led some novelists, and it also lets us see how important fiction is to our world and our imperfect understanding of it, even (especially) if fiction is never able to capture anything. Nor should we expect it to; nor should we want it to, except insofar as we’d like to live in a world simple enough to be captured.
For this is the point: we want literature to capture our troubled times. But our times are so troubled, in part, because they are near impossible to capture in the first place. If our troubled times could so easily be captured, would they be so troubled? In wanting our literature to capture our historical moment, we are asking, basically, for our literature to simplify our historical moment. When literature does so, the results are often disastrous. Take, for instance, Wolfe’s own novels. Unlike his books of nonfiction—which are swift, funny, perceptive, curious and which, to my mind, evoke and transform their time and place rather than capture their time and place—his novels are plodding, self-pleased, cartoonish. If Wolfe’s nonfiction is about the hubristic tendencies of his subjects, his fiction tends to reveal more about the hubristic tendencies of its author. The trouble begins with Wolfe’s conception of his books. This is his account of his 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, in “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”: “As I saw it, such a book should be a novel of the city.” Later, he describes the same novel as “a big book about New York.” Bigness is part of these novels’ problem: it is not just that they are long, but that they are flabby, turgid, gasbaggy. Wolfe no doubt intends them to be full of life, but instead they seem more full of Wolfe.
But really, it is not mostly that the novels are overlong: it is that they set out to be the final word on a subject—New York and the 1980s in The Bonfire of the Vanities, the New South and the 1990s in A Man in Full. Wolfe’s prepositions—“of” and “about”—are significant, in that they tell us that the author does indeed want to capture his complicated subjects, to stand for them, to be the final word on them. But the problem is, his subjects (class, race, regional identity, municipal and national politics) are complicated, and as such they refuse to be captured, unless, of course, you make them less complicated. Wolfe’s characters—whether they are black or white, rich or poor, Southern or Northern, New Southern or Old Southern—must be reduced to exactly these categories, these types, these caricatures, if Wolfe is going to capture them. One’s historical moment is more easily understood this way, of course; but then it also becomes a historical moment not much worth understanding.
Take Wolfe’s approach to New York itself at the beginning of The Bonfire of the Vanities. The Jewish mayor of New York is holding a press conference in Harlem in which he is shouted down by the mostly black crowd, and after briefly attempting to verbally spar with the crowd, the mayor (and the novel) retreats to this internal monologue: “Come down from your swell co-ops, you general partners and merger lawyers! It’s the Third World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese, and Afro-Americans!” Wolfe means for this list to convey how New York is spiraling out of (white) control, but instead the passage is oddly tame and generic, as though it were written by an excitable census taker. Everything about the rhetoric (“swell co-ops,” “general partners and merger lawyers”) speaks not of chaos, but of categories, of generalities. As Wolfe unintentionally shows us, chaos is specific, but control is generic. This is also true of Wolfe’s subsequent account of New York’s neighborhoods:
Morningside Heights, St. Nicholas Park, Washington Heights, Fort Tyron—por que pagar mas!—The Bronx—the Bronx is finished for you! Riverdale is just a little freeport up there. Pelham Parkway—keep the corridor open to Westchester! Brooklyn—your Brooklyn is no more! Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope—little Hong Kongs, that’s all! And Queens! Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Hollis, Jamaica, Ozone Park—whose is it? Do you know? And where does that leave Ridgewood, Bayside, and Forest Hills? Have you ever thought about that? And Staten Island!
Again, Wolfe means for this list to convey something about the big demographic changes in New York in the 1980s, about how alive and terrifying he finds the city, but the passage comes off as something narrated by a highly pessimistic real estate agent: a reader who doesn’t know New York won’t know it any better at the end of the list; a reader who does know New York, or thinks he or she knows it, won’t have any better or different understanding of the city at the end of the list, either. What does Wolfe think he’s doing, then? Wolfe’s own account—in “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”—of his attempt to capture this chaos is telling: “The past three decades have been decades of tremendous and at times convulsive social changes, especially in large cities, and the tide of the fourth great wave of immigration has made the picture seem all the more chaotic, random, and discontinuous.” If this is true, then why do the above-quoted passages from The Bonfire of the Vanities seem about as random and chaotic as a roll call? Wolfe, again, provides the answer in his essay: “The economy with which realistic fiction can bring the many currents of a city together in a single, fairly simply [sic] story was something I found exhilarating.” The author might indeed find it exhilarating to be able to take a complicated story and make it simple, but as readers, we should not be so thrilled, unless, of course (as Donadio suggests), we want fiction to capture our chaotic times and to organize them and reduce them in the process.
Wolfe’s approach to the city is similar to the way he approaches his main characters. Briefly, the novel (told in omniscient narration) focuses on married investment banker Sherman McCoy, who is having an affair with Maria, a wealthy Southerner married to an older man; Larry Kramer, a somewhat down-on-his-luck Jewish lawyer working in the DA’s office; and an expatriate British journalist, Peter Fallow. Early in the novel, Sherman and Maria find themselves in a bad neighborhood in the Bronx, and, panicking, Maria (who is driving Sherman’s car) runs over and kills one of two black boys Maria and Sherman think are about to rob them. Inevitably, then, this act brings McCoy closer and closer to Fallow—who reports on the as-yet-unsolved hit-and-run—and Kramer, who will be involved in prosecuting the case.
As Wolfe himself would say, this story is “fairly simple,” as is the way Wolfe defines his characters. Sherman is known from the novel’s beginning as “Master of the Universe”; Maria, aside from her physical attributes, is known by the way she pronounces Sherman’s name (“Shuhhh-mun”); Kramer is known by his self-loathing, his unrealized dreams (“Let’s face it!” Wolfe screams at his character early on. “You’re an American workdaddy now! Nothing more.”); Fallow, who is by far the most interesting character in the novel, if only because Wolfe must feel an obligation to his fellow journalists not to reduce them to mere types, is known by a number of ways, but mostly by his inebriation.
There is nothing inherently wrong with these characters, or with the way Wolfe initially defines them. After all, one must never approach one’s characters through character summary. Instead, as fiction writer Donald Barthelme says, “The world enters the work as it enters our ordinary lives, not as worldview or system but in sharp particularity.” True, Wolfe sets up his characters in a somewhat dubious, simplistic fashion—Sherman is set up to fall, Fallow to rise, Kramer to stay more or less where he is—and it is also true that the limitations of the characters—the way they see themselves and their worlds, the way they’re reduced to types, and they way they reduce themselves to types—say something about their creator’s own limited sense of the world and its inhabitants. But all that aside, it could be said that Wolfe does what all novelists do: he finds an economical way to introduce his characters (“Shuhhh-mun”). And after that has been accomplished, the novelist must give them the sort of depth, mystery, and complexity (through dialogue, internal monologue, point of view, metaphor) that their real-life counterparts might not exhibit, and that nonfiction thus might not be able to report on.
But Wolfe is not able to give his characters this depth, or at least he chooses not to, and that is due, in part, to his training as a nonfiction writer. For instance, nearly halfway through the book, Sherman reads a news-paper report (written by Fallow) on the black teenager—Henry Lamb—whom Maria has run over with Sherman’s car. The report doesn’t name Sherman, but clearly someone will, soon, and clearly the article portends bad things for him:
Our pity is not good enough for Henry Lamb and the many other good people who are determined to beat the odds in the less affluent sections of our city. They need to know that their hopes and dreams are important to the future of all New York. We call for an aggressive investigation of every angle of the Lamb case.
Basically, this article tells Sherman his life as “Master of the Universe” is over, and his life as a known philanderer, racist, and felon is just beginning. And what is Sherman’s reaction? “He was rocked.” Wait: is that it? What can this mean: he was rocked? It is so generic as to mean nothing. On one level, of course he was rocked: who wouldn’t be? But Sherman should be defined by his reaction to this sort of terrible news; we should get some sort of specific, startling insight into his character, something that will elevate him beyond the caricature he has thus far been. How, exactly, is he rocked? What are the particular manifestations and characteristics of his rockedness? Wolfe doesn’t say, and why not? One could argue that Wolfe is lazy: after all, it’s difficult to really look into a person, to try to fathom or at least imagine that person’s inner life, his or her mystery, which is why, in real life, we choose not to do so all the time. But I don’t think Wolfe is merely lazy; I think Wolfe’s training as a journalist—precisely the thing he says the contemporary novel needs—is what prevents him from writing the novel he wants to write. After all, if McCoy were a real person and Wolfe were writing a nonfiction piece about him, he would not be able to say what McCoy was thinking. And unless Wolfe was there while McCoy was reading this newspaper article, he would not be able to see what his visible reaction was, either. In a piece of journalism the sentence “He was rocked” might not seem so lacking. (In fact, at the end of the novel, there is a newspaper article on Sherman which says that “Mr. McCoy’s marriage was rocked by the revelation,” and used in a piece of journalism, “rocked” seems not nearly as lazy as it did when it was the sum and total of Sherman’s point of view.) So, using his background as a journalist, Wolfe has Sherman be rocked—and later on, after Sherman tells his wife, Judy, about what he’s done, “She was staggered”—and then escapes before things get difficult, before he has to give his protagonist a meaningful point of view, an inner life. But this is what a novelist can do, should do, must do: a novelist has the opportunity to look inside, to imagine a person’s depths, and a novelist must take advantage of that opportunity. Wolfe believes in width (as when he casts his wide net and hauls in the names of New York’s neighborhoods and nationalities), but a novel is a novel not because it spreads wide, but because it goes deep, just as a novel is a novel not because it captures our troubled times, but because it illuminates and imagines the specific aspects of the trouble.
If a writer must give his characters an inner life, a unique way of seeing the world and themselves, if they are to help make a novel a novel, then a writer also must give characters their own particular way of talking about the world. But again, Wolfe’s experience as a journalist also inhibits the way in which his characters speak. Sherman, again, is Wolfe’s primary character and therefore the primary example of Wolfe’s limitations. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, Sherman is about to be arraigned for his crime, and he tries to tell his six-year-old daughter how he’ll be mentioned in the newspapers and on television and to not believe what she hears.
“Will you be in history, Daddy?”
History? “No, I won’t be in history, Campbell. But I’ll be smeared, vilified, dragged through the mud.”
He knew she wouldn’t understand a word of it.
Of course Campbell doesn’t understand a word of it, any more than she would understand it if her daddy had told her he was rocked. Campbell doesn’t understand what her father is saying not because she is six years old, but because her father isn’t saying anything that would make her (or us) want to understand him. Sherman speaks in cliches, and he speaks in cliches—Wolfe would explain—because real people speak in cliches. This is a truism, I suppose, because we’ve all used cliches, and we’re all real people, or at least, we want to be; and as Wolfe understands it, a realistic novel has its characters speak in the way in which real people speak. Again, if Wolfe were writing a nonfiction piece about Sherman, and if Sherman spoke in cliches, then Wolfe couldn’t very well have him speak otherwise. But this to my mind is a limitation of nonfiction, not a strength, and when applied to fiction it becomes even more of a liability. After all, the novelist has the opportunity to have his characters speak in a way they might not be able to, or want to, in real life. This is not to say that the novelist should make them sound implausible, but if he could make them speak in a way that defines them, that transforms, elevates, degrades, and in any case, deepens their sense of themselves and our sense of them, then why would he choose not to do so? Why would Wolfe choose, in the novel’s opening scene, to have the crowd respond to the mayor in this fashion: “Go on home! . . . Booooo . . . Yaggggghhh . . . Yo!” Whether a crowd might respond this way in real life is important to Wolfe—one can picture him sitting in the back of the crowd, tape recorder in hand, an urban anthropologist in white bucks recording the speech patterns of the natives—but if he’s writing a novel, it should not be the most important thing. After all, how does the “Booooo” distinguish this crowd from a generic crowd? And if it doesn’t, then why bother having them say it? Did Wolfe’s experience as a journalist suggest that he add a fifth g in “Yaggggghhh”? And why, oh, why that “Yo!”? Did Wolfe really believe he nailed the black vernacular with the “Yo!”? If this is realistic dialogue, then why would we want a novel to employ it? After scenes like this, we almost long for Sherman’s cliches, until we hear them again, as in this scene, in which Sherman responds to his impending arrest in the following canned fashion: “I can’t believe what I’ve done. If I had only played it straight with [Maria]! Me!—with my pretensions of respectability and propriety!” One could argue, of course, that this passage just shows Sherman’s limitations, but all of Wolfe’s characters speak in ways that prevent insight and merely propel the book from one high-pitched, over-the-top scene to the next. The way Sherman speaks points not to a failure of language, but to a failure of Wolfe.
My point here is not that every journalist is doomed to write bad novels, or that fiction is superior to nonfiction, or that realism is inferior to whatever we choose to label its opposite, but that if one is going to write a novel, then one had best emphasize and pursue its virtues as fiction and not try to make the novel more like nonfiction. Wolfe admits: “One very obvious matter I had not reckoned with: in nonfiction you are very conveniently provided with the setting and the characters and the plot. You now have the task—and it is a huge one—of bringing it all alive as convincingly as the best of realistic fiction. But you don’t have to concoct the story. Indeed, you can’t. I found the sudden freedom of fiction intimidating.” Wolfe’s solution, then, was to apply the rules of nonfiction to fiction as a way of abdicating the freedom (freedom being a well-known euphemism for difficulty) of writing a novel. In this way, Wolfe created a doppelgänger in Fallow. For as Wolfe admits, “Like most journalists who have been handed a story, Fallow was eager to persuade himself that he had discovered and breathed life into this clay itself.” Wolfe doesn’t even do this much: he doesn’t even try to breathe life into the clay. Instead, he assumes the clay already has a life of its own, and all he has to do (to hopelessly mix the metaphor) is to slap the clay down on the page and call it a day, and a novel. And the clay, in this case, is New York of the 1980s—an important, complicated, unpredictable time and place, to be sure, although you wouldn’t know that from The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Wolfe is to blame for the quality of his own books, of course, but so are we as readers: we tend to think important novels are important because they are about or of something inherently significant. For instance, we often talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as being a great novel about or of the Roaring Twenties, as though the novel were important only because it was about an important historical moment. True, The Great Gatsby uses its beautifully wrought, memorable characters to evoke its historical moment. But it is not about the Roaring Twenties the way Wolfe says his novel is about New York; it does not capture the Roaring Twenties the way Donadio seems to suggest great fiction should (and, at the moment, doesn’t) capture our own historical moment. When we think of the Roaring Twenties, we might think of The Great Gatsby, not because we know the era itself, but because we know the novel. This is a testament to the greatness of the novel, not to its choice of subjects. But we would not know the novel—or want to know it—so well if it set out to be about the era instead of about Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and Daisy and Tom Buchanan.
I am not suggesting, however, that the novel is incapable of engaging with our historical moment and that it should only look inward, or that it should look outward but only in the most ethereal, exalted way possible. Indeed, the only thing more irksome than the semiannual Death of the Novel report is the defense that fiction may not chronicle current events, but it does chronicle more important things—like the Human Condition, or even worse, the Human Spirit. The gushy imprecision of these terms makes one want to fall back into the big, strong arms of nonfiction. Donadio suggests that this is exactly why contemporary readers and publishers are more invested in nonfiction than fiction: “Fiction may still be one escape of choice—along with television and movies and video games and iPods—but when it comes to illuminating today’s world most vividly, nonfiction is winning.” But are these our only two choices: books that provide an escape from our historical moment and books that set out to capture, and thus (I would argue) simplify, our historical moment? Are those our only two choices? Shouldn’t we get more than two choices?
We should, and we do, although one wouldn’t get that impression from reading Donadio’s essay. As her essay would have us understand it, after September 11, 2001, there are nonfiction books which have tackled our historical moment and novels which have avoided the contact: “If, as Naipaul argues, fiction is no longer adequate to make sense of the world, then it’s understandable why magazines and readers turn to nonfiction. As a rule, novelists shouldn’t become editorialists, but it’s safe to say no novels have yet engaged with the post–Sept. 11 era.” It is not safe to say this: there are novels that have engaged with the post–September 11 era. The problem here is more Donadio’s idea of the state of the novel than the novels themselves. When she writes that “no novels have yet engaged with the post–Sept. 11 era,” she means that there are no novels like the kind Wolfe has written—big realistic novels which attempt to “capture” or “make sense of” the post–September 11 era. As I hope I’ve shown, we should not want those novels as badly as we’ve been told we should want them. But that aside, there are novels that have engaged with the post–September 11 era, novels that have represented our era in its difficulty, in its absurdity and tragedy. These novels have not pretended to capture or make sense of our era, which is precisely why they’re worthy and why we should read them.
The best example of such a novel is Heidi Julavits’s 2003 book, The Effect of Living Backwards. Briefly, the novel is about a group of airplane hijackers who may or may not actually be hijackers, two sisters (Alice—who is the novel’s narrator—and her soon-to-be-married and somewhat slutty sister, Edith) on the airplane who may or may not be complicit in their own hijacking (if it is one), and something called the International Institute for Terrorist Studies, whose mission is either to prevent terrorism or promote terrorism, or perhaps both, and which is either behind the hijacking or trying to stop it, or perhaps both. It should be clear from this too-brief synopsis that instead of capturing and making sense of our world—as Donadio seems to think literature should do—Julavits creates a stylized, surreal, but not unrecognizable version of our own world, a world which evokes our own world’s confusions and contradictions without attempting to be a replica of our world.
In other words, The Effect of Living Backwards is the complete antithesis of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Early on in the novel—which, unlike The Bonfire of the Vanities, is nonlinear and which begins near the story’s chronological end—the Institute asks Alice what it asks all its students: “But how can you be so certain?” This is not a question Wolfe would ever bother to ask, given that he believes novels must report on their subjects, that they need to “wrestle the beast and bring it to terms.” But what Wolfe doesn’t recognize and Julavits does is that this is very much a novelist’s question: a novel cannot broach difficult subjects and still be a novel without asking itself and its characters, “But how can you be so certain?” Wolfe suggests a novelist must have the authority of a reporter; in contrast, Julavits suggests that authority is a euphemism for a lack of curiosity and that if an author is going to do justice to her subjects, then she must be curious about them, all the while admitting that if they are truly complex, then there is no way for an author to capture them. A novelist can gesture toward and evoke a subject’s mystery but cannot pretend to solve it. Alice’s account of Bruno, the (possibly) blind head hijacker—“Something about the guy bothered me. He seemed too confident of his puzzle place in the greater interlocking world”—is telling, and what it tells us is that in our post–September 11 era, we should be wary of people who seem too certain of themselves, and we should be equally wary of books that seem too certain about their subjects, and of critics who want them to be.
This sense of uncertainty (which, I would argue, is kissing cousin to curiosity) is what makes The Effect of Living Backwards such an important novel—in part because it believes in its own fictiveness, believes that as fiction it can do something that nonfiction cannot, and in the process shows us exactly how Wolfe’s novel fails as a novel and how we should not keep asking for novels to repeat that failure. Take, for instance, the approach to dialogue in The Effect of Living Backwards—specifically, the way people of different cultures and nationalities speak to and understand each other. The stakes are high, because Julavits is trying to evoke a world (“the post–Sept. 11 era”) defined by the inability of a person from one culture to understand a person from another, a world in which one often hears one’s enemies issue threats in a language one doesn’t understand, and so one hears the threats not directly from the one who threatens but rather from the one who translates the threat. What to do, then, as a novelist? Wolfe would argue that a novelist must write the dialogue as a reporter would, and one must do so with authority and accuracy (“Yo!”). But Julavits suggests otherwise, as in this scene, when Alice is asked to speak with a hostage negotiator who “pretends to speak only in Sasak,” a language Alice also speaks, but not well.
“Snamo?” a voice said. “Gno mnabo nay?”
“Snamo,” I responded.
“Gno mnabo nay?” the man repeated. . . .
“I am Alice,” I replied. My Sasak, never exemplary, was pretty rusty. “We have been hijacked.”
There was a pause.
“Your Sasak is barely adequate. . . .”
“My apologies,” I said, disconcerted, “it’s been a few years.” (Literally I said, “Look away from this sorry girl, many years until Sasak talking.”) “Barely adequate” was a more than polite assessment. My Sasak sucked. . . .
“And yourself, Alice, you are well?”
“I am a wallet head of exuberance,” I told him in Sasak.
The first thing to be noted about this scene is that it is very, very funny. The humor comes, in part, from Alice’s lack of authority: she barely knows what she’s doing, and this is funny because we wouldn’t know what we were doing, either. In other words, the author doesn’t give her narrator an implausible command of a strange and difficult situation, and this helps the reader empathize, whereas the authority of reportage would keep the reader at a distance. Moreover, the imprecision of Alice’s translation—and the other hijackees’ dependence on it—reminds us that in our attempt to understand the world, we’re also dependent on someone else’s possible imprecision. But the scene is also funny because funny is exactly what we don’t expect a novel about an airplane hijacking to be. After all, immediately after September 11, we were told by nearly anyone with a microphone or a computer that funny was no longer an option, at least as far as certain subjects were concerned (airplane hijacking presumably being one of them). How does Julavits get away with it? In part, she does so by not worrying about whether she’s going to get away with it or not, but also by having the negotiator and Alice speak in a language (it’s spoken on the island of Lombok in Indonesia) so obscure that most readers will wonder if it even really exists, thus allowing the reader a distance, a perspective, that the reader wouldn’t have if they were speaking, say, Arabic. In other words, Julavits never forgets that she is writing fiction, and this is what fiction can do with our historical moment: it can provide us a vantage point from which we can look at our moment, and thus it can give us insight into our moment that the real world (and the people who report on it) cannot provide.
The Effect of Living Backwards also thrives because of the way it treats its sources. As I’ve already demonstrated, Wolfe demands that a novelist go out and act like a reporter, which is to say, report on what he sees and hears, what he witnesses. Donadio tacitly agrees with this and suggests that nonfiction writers have surpassed fiction writers precisely because they are more willing to report on real life, to talk about reality. But both Donadio and Wolfe have a ruinously narrow view of real life: by real life, Wolfe and Donadio mean something that one has witnessed “in the field” and then perhaps augmented by archival or historical research to support what one has witnessed. But is this all? Is that all real life means? Fortunately, for a fiction writer, that is not all it means. Yes, novelists care about what they witness, and they also care about history, fact, verisimilitude; but those are not the only things they care about. Flannery O’Connor once said that “the writer is initially set going by literature more than by life.” I would amend this slightly and argue that literature is one of the things in life that sets a writer going, which is another way of saying that literature isn’t something artificially added to life or extraneous to life, but is part of it. But the idea that when we talk about life we also talk about literature—and I would add art and popular culture—has been lost, and it is clear why: what we regard as real life is so confusing that we need to get rid of everything else (art, literature, movies) so that it might become something less confusing. For instance, as Benjamin Kunkel puts it in another recent New York Times Book Review essay, it was commonly thought and opined immediately after September 11 that “literature . . . couldn’t matter much at first, in the face of so much murder and alarm.” It is true that after the World Trade Center was destroyed, no one was walking around demanding that people get reacquainted with the Great Books. But is it not also true that when we saw the airplanes plow into the towers, part of our response to that terrible sight was our memory of similar scenes in books, movies, visual art of all kind? When we saw Osama bin Laden on television, did we see only Osama bin Laden, or did we also see the terrorists in Don DeLillo’s excellent 1991 novel Mao II, or for that matter, the terrorists in Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron’s loathsome 1994 movie True Lies? Of course we did, for better or worse. And this is why we want to make the world smaller, more cramped; this is why some of us want to not think of art and literature when we think about the world: it is difficult enough to understand bin Laden and our response to bin Laden without also thinking about how art has influenced our response. But fortunately, this is what fiction can do: it can restore the world to its full complication, whether the world wants it to or not. Consider, for example, this terrific moment in The Effect of Living Backwards, in which Alice and Edith argue about their hijackers:
“There is something very, very strange about all this,” I said. “Something’s not right about this hijacking.”
“And you would know, being such the veteran.”
I frowned. “So where are the police, Edith?”
“Napping,” she said. “Selling arms to children. God knows. This is Africa, Alice. The police might be worse than the terrorists.”
“Where are the reporters?”
“Filing their stories, I guess. Where do you get these expectations? The movies?”
I stared at her as if to reply, Where does one get one’s ideas about anything?
How much more terrifying and exhilarating the world seems after this scene! How much bigger the world seems when we ask ourselves the question, Where does one get one’s ideas about anything? This is what the novel does, after all: it makes us see our many sources for understanding the world and in the process makes the world seem as big as we don’t always want it to be. Which is why we then call for novels like The Bonfire of the Vanities, which makes our largest, most vibrant city seem about as expansive and dangerous as Sioux Falls on a Sunday night.
Of course, the bigger the world gets, the more confusing it is, and The Effect of Living Backwards doesn’t attempt to downplay the confusion, as Julavits shows through the hijacked plane’s pilot’s announcement: “[The pilot] apologized for unlocking the cockpit door—but how could we blame him? How was he to know that a steward was a hijacker? What had happened to trust in this world? Why wasn’t anyone who he was supposed to be anymore?” But it should be said that the confusion in the novel is not a nihilistic there-is-no-such-thing-as-the-truth confusion, but a confusion that very much evokes our historical moment’s confusion, so much so that the book’s characters wonder if the simplest answer might not be, in fact, the right one. As Alice tells another passenger, “We can’t rule out the possibility that this is a good old-fashioned hijacking.” But neither are we allowed the comfort of knowing that the simplest answer is the true one. In fact, one of the most terrifying things about The Effect of Living Backwards is that it gives us various plausible answers to our most important questions, answers that are based on distorted but recognizable versions of our own experience, as when one of the passengers asks Bruno, “‘Why can’t you just act normally? . . . Why can’t you just shoot people or fly us into a building?’ Bruno considered this question. ‘Because, Justin,’ he said after a time, ‘that would make me a common terrorist.’”
At this juncture it should be pointed out that nowhere does Julavits say her novel is about September 11, although it clearly evokes September 11, and it clearly depends on the reader’s memory and experience of September 11 (for instance, it refers to a previous disaster as the Big Terrible, which, by the way, is also what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called September 11). And while the passenger asks Bruno why he doesn’t “fly us into a building,” that is the only time such an act is mentioned, and there is no scene in which we see planes crashing into the World Trade Center. This absence is significant. Wolfe argues in his essay that “The future of the fiction novel would be in highly detailed realism based on reporting.” By this, Wolfe means that fiction best approaches its big subjects directly, head-on, which—to use Wolfe’s rhetoric—is the only effective, honorable way of wrestling the beast. It might be true that nonfiction profits by approaching its subjects directly, but it is not true of fiction: after all, by making up its characters (even if they’re based on something or someone in real life), fiction automatically approaches its subjects indirectly, by virtue of its fictiveness. Donadio and Wolfe seem to view this as a liability. But Julavits’s novel suggests otherwise: if the Big Terrible is really so terrible, then it defies our attempts to completely understand it, to make sense of it, to report on it with authority, to approach it head-on. All one has to do is read Jonathan Safran Foer’s cloying and deeply unsatisfying novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to see the perils of approaching the Big Terrible directly. Instead, as Julavits shows, we might better take on such massive subjects intelligently, indirectly, in ways that might not exactly comfort us but are surprising, irreverent, provocative, entertaining, and edifying. As Alice herself points out, “We imagine we will react a certain way to imminent tragedy, and yet the reality is that the mind fails to respond as we expect it will respond.” Donadio suggests that nonfiction is best at responding to our times, but I would argue that fiction—through its uncertainty and curiosity, its sense of invention and mystery—is our most powerful reaction to tragedy, our most enduring document of the way we think we’re going to respond to tragedy and how we actually respond. In The Effect of Living Backwards, Julavits doesn’t make sense of our historical moment the way, say, Friedman tries to in his nonfiction book Longitudes and Attitudes: The World in the Age of Terrorism, but she does do something more difficult and rewarding: she shows the chaos, the lack of sense, of the post–September 11 era. At one point in The Effect of Living Backwards, one of the hijackees tells Alice that the world is odd, and Alice responds, “‘The world isn’t that odd. . . . The world tends to make a lot of sad sense.’ I didn’t actually believe this.” Fifty years from now, readers will read this passage from The Effect of Living Backwards and be able to learn a great deal about the confusion of our time, will understand how little sense it made, and will also understand something about our thwarted desire to make it make sense; one will not necessarily get this impression from Friedman’s book, no matter how timely it is. This is another way of saying that in fifty years we will still be reading Julavits’s book, but I would be willing to bet that in fifty years we won’t be reading Friedman’s. That’s not because Friedman’s book isn’t worth rereading, but rather because, between now and 2056, some other nonfiction book will come along, something more timely than Friedman’s book, and someone will be saying how sad it is that fiction isn’t as timely as nonfiction anymore, that it doesn’t capture the era, and if we’re lucky, novels like Julavits’s will still be around to show us that fiction doesn’t have to capture an era to engage with it, and that we, the readers, shouldn’t want it to in the first place.