Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Absurdist Social Criticism

After reading a long string of nonfiction books, I usually begin to crave some good fiction, and, as you know, I always have trouble finding it. I thought that I would attempt to explain how I came to develop my particular literary taste, because I don't actually know anyone whose taste is the same as mine. I was extremely late to develop any literary preferences and only began to when I was most of the way through college. I was more affected by film, and the film that had the greatest impact on me was Dr. Strangelove (1964); this was followed by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). In the interim, I came across some early Soviet fiction and was impressed by Mikhail Bulgakov in "The Fatal Eggs" and his novel, The Master and Magarita. When I was thirty-six, I read Lorrie Moore's short story, "How to Be an Other Woman" and thought that was good. Later, when I was about forty, I read Middlemarch and thought that it was the best novel I'd ever read. Through these works, I think you can get a sense of what interests me.

Dr. Strangelove, in addition to falling clearly within the absurdist tradition, contains a critique of government, and it finishes with an explicit statement of where its ineptitude can lead. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest features the antics of a funny subversive and the horrific incompetence of a mental hospital. This is probably Jack Nicholson's best performance, which helps, but I think it is a significant fact that the film was directed by Miloš Forman, a Czech. I read the novel, by Ken Kesey, and didn't find it nearly as good. The Master and Margarita is evidence of a talented writer living under a totalitarian regime and making fun of it as a consolation, while weaving in deeper human themes. "How to Be an Other Woman" describes in humorous terms how a woman might come to understand her relationship with a man who is engaged in a series of infidelities, and, as part of the collection, Self-Help, parodies advice books. Compared to the others, Middlemarch seems more like a  straightforward novel, but it contains much subtlety, and, because it was written in the English tradition, it skewers English society in ways that some readers may not recognize. While George Eliot always maintains sympathy for her characters, Edward Casaubon is clearly a foolish, self-centered intellectual who wastes time on an implausible grand theory; Rosamond Vincy is a fatuous bourgeois; Nicholas Bulstrode is a pious hypocrite – etc. This novel portrays English society in the Midlands of the 1830's and dissects it, showing both its strengths and its weaknesses, and does this with a delicate touch, while at the same time highlighting the relevant human foibles. The novel was written well before absurdism became a genre, but there is some unobtrusive social criticism. 

What I think you find in these works is astute social observation, and in most of them a critique of the reigning powers. In Dr. Strangelove, the American government, in effect, brings the world to an end. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the hero is lobotomized. In "How to Be an Other Woman," the narrator leaves you with the feeling that male-female relationships are like an infinite regress stacked against the female. In Middlemarch, humanity is seen to exist on a fragile basis over which people have little control, thus, in the end, the central characters, Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw, go on to lead unexceptional lives, in contrast to Dorothea's high aspirations. 

In these works, I generally found close social observation and brainy critiques, and I don't often find comparable ones. Since I wasn't born in the U.S., I have always been skeptical of American ideology, and it is rarely questioned here. The early Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, including Poland, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, on the other hand, were better environments for the flourishing of intellectual dissidents. Although Czeslaw Milosz's literary works were hardly radical, in his book, The Captive Mind, he outlined the rather intense psychological pressures that intellectuals were forced to endure. Comparatively, American intellectuals have never experienced any duress, and they have lived their lives in obscure corners of this capitalist utopia, hardly making a dissenting peep. Most American novels, as far as I know, consist only of basic storytelling, and, these days, are often about the experiences of groups adapting to the prevailing culture, without questioning it much. The literary atmosphere, rather than being energized by angry dissidents, is mellowed by M.F.A. programs that groom writers for the publishing industry. If a novel were actually interesting, it probably wouldn't be a bestseller.

As far as American fiction is concerned, I'm tired of trying the latest wunderkinds, such as John Kennedy Toole, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, George Saunders and Lauren Groff, but I suppose I'll keep an open mind and attempt to read some future ones. As it is, I think I've wasted enough time on them already. It is ironic that with so much material readily available in the U.S. – a completely corrupt and incompetent president, a seriously dysfunctional federal government, rampant gerrymandering, unaddressed climate change and the botched handling of the coronavirus – writers can't do a better job. 

In recent years, I've been making stabs at Michel Houellebecq and László Krasznahorkai. Houellebecq has some of the characteristics that I like, but he has too many flaws. Foremost, he doesn't write perceptively about people, and his plots are always a little harebrained. The Map and the Territory, when read carefully, is a critique of the art market. However, because Houellebecq's writing is sloppy and his style is deadpan, many readers may not realize this. Submission was obviously the result of Houellebecq's desire to exploit fears that Islamic forces are affecting life in France. As in his other novels, all of the characters lack psychological nuance. It is easy for me to differentiate Houellebecq from works by people whom I think are good. I would guess that, though possessing some talent, he is in this for the money. Krasznahorkai is a better bet, because he hasn't sold out completely in order to make as much money as possible. In his case, he is one of the best writers ever to capture some of the complex psychological aspects of being human. For most readers, he would be too obscure, and they would be unable to appreciate his Kafkaesque qualities. Krasznahorkai's limitations are related to the fact that what he really knows well is Hungary, which, at this point, is hardly representative of most of the developed world. What I find is that he is one of the most psychologically astute writers, and that he, more than any other that I know, understands what it feels like to live in a repressive ideological state, which, frankly, is what the U.S. is, once you understand the nature of capitalist institutions. For this reason, I have chosen to read Krasznahorkai's latest book, Chasing Homer. I thought that his short story, "The Last Wolf," was one of the best I've ever read, so this is worth a try. Of course, Krasznahorkai is virtually unknown in the U.S. For example, Satantango, one of his best-known novels, currently has163 reviews on Amazon.com, whereas Lauren Groff's latest novel, Matrix, has 1171. Apparently, deciding whose fiction to read depends on your social media. Needless to say, I don't and never will have Facebook or Twitter accounts.

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