Friday, May 1, 1998

Notes From Underground: American Literature, Alive and Well and in the Hands of Maniacs

Notes From Underground: American Literature,

Alive and Well and in the Hands of Maniacs

Originally published in the Underdog, a journal published by the University of Amsterdams English Department, April/May 1998

Does American literature make you yawn? Are you bored to tears by novels about farms or divorces or the minute workings of the suburban family? Then chances are you’ve been paying too much attention to the New York Times bestseller list, or the recent list of Pulitzer Prize winners. Because let’s face it: Boring sells in America, when it comes to literature, at least. Most readers don’t want to be challenged by alternate views of the world they live in—be they challenges in viewpoint or formal literary innovations. The book-buying public wants stories about an America that doesn’t really exist, a logical, rational place unsullied by the self-reflexive problems—or triumphs—of postmodernity. In other words, we want the world sold to us on television, and we don’t want to question that world—or the conduits through which we receive that world.

But fortunately, there’s a strong undercurrent working against this seemingly monolithic flow of domestic blah—a fistful of young (as well as older) writers not only showing us the America we feared existed, but doing it in ways that challenge the very place—and purpose—of literature. Not satisfied with producing “slices of life” in the conventional sense, our best writers’ work is a complex dialogue with reality—or “reality,” since the way these writers portray the world often dismisses the notion of any kind of objective or capturable truth. Rejecting the sanitized TV world, these writers’ work is like the notion of TV itself—bizarre, choppy, problematic, unsettling, endlessly self-referential and, above all, postmodern.

Leading the pack—or maybe being the entire pack himself—is the thirty-eight-year-old novelist William T. Vollmann. Extending the fictional legacy left him by the previous generation’s literary weirdoes—Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo and Cynthia Ozick, to name a few—Vollmann stands as one of our most exciting—and disturbing—fictioneers. Having published approximately 5,000 pages worth of material in the last eleven years, Vollmann is charting a literary world that’s as breathtaking in its vision as it is exhausting in scope. Mixing together the fantastic and the ostensibly real, his world is a creepy, ever-shifting confusion of reportage and myth, and his overall effect on the reader—like that of Pynchon or Gaddis or even Melville—is a strange feeling of having journeyed through a parallel universe that only calls itself America.

In 1982, having just graduated from Cornell University, Vollmann crossed into Afghanistan with Islamic commandos, gathering material for what would become The Afghanistan Picture Show, and after that he worked as a computer programmer in San Francisco. I interviewed Vollmann two years ago for The Minnesota Daily, and he says that he wrote his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, while living in his office. He worked for eight hours, slept for eight hours, and wrote for eight hours, and the resulting novel is one of the most astonishingly weird books of our time. Although not as successful in artistic terms as his later work, You Bright and Risen Angels invented a new world of possibility for the novel. Narrated both by someone called “The Author,” a man working in a computer programming office, and by “Big George,” a ubiquitous electrical force that oversees everything, the novel tells the story of a bloody revolutionary war between insects and electricity. With two narrators, the reader never knows who’s speaking or who’s in charge of the text, and with the story jumping between stylized versions of American history and absurd flights of imagination, the novel challenges almost every assumption about what a novel is supposed to do.

Vollmann’s second book, The Rainbow Stories, is probably my favorite of his works, addressing such diverse subjects as neo-Nazi skinheads, prostitution, Islamic assassins, and the Bible. Each story takes up a different color, and the result is a widely variegated vision of Vollmann’s literary spectrum. Vollmann’s most recent book, The Atlas, attempts a similar scope, the stories spanning both the literal globe and the author’s literary globe, and with a palindromic structure holding the stories together, the collection falls back on itself like a book closing itself at its end. Vollmann is also at work on a series called Seven Dreams, which tells the history of America beginning with the first interactions between Native Americans and Norse conquerors and probably taking us up to the present day. He’s published the first, second, and sixth volumes of the series, and he’s sporadically working on the others as we speak. Also highly recommended is his short novel Whores for Gloria, which, like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, presents a brief, bizarre, and endlessly suggestive nightmare vision of the American underworld.

Like Vollmann, our other leading literary lights are the ones who challenge us both textually and contextually, taking up not just new fictional territory, but also new ways of exploring that territory. The biggest standouts seem to be David Foster Wallace, Rikki Ducornet, and Richard Grossman, who are all writing novels as if they were not just reinventing the wheel, but were inventing something completely unimagined. Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest is probably the best example of what I’m talking about; taking on politics, popular culture, family life, and the novel itself, it explores the world of art and entertainment in ways that question their very nature. And at almost 1,100 pages, you’d think he’d be able to come up with some kind of exhaustive lexicon of the states of art and entertainment; but in his most postmodern move, the novel ends about 600 or 700 pages short of resolution. Although it may be somewhat influenced by Vollmann’s first novel, which constantly refers to forthcoming (and nonexistent) volumes and whose table of contents covers about three times more ground than the novel itself, Infinite Jest’s ending suggests new ways for novels to think about themselves. It’s massive and incomplete, and this may be the best we can hope for these days.

Rikki Ducornet, although not as young as Vollmann or Wallace, is still on the cutting edge of what’s going on in American letters. But while those two bring to mind Pynchon or Gaddis, she recalls writers such as Lewis Carroll, the Marquis de Sade, Kafka, and Borges. Unlikely bedfellows, for sure, but in Ducornet’s zany literary universe, absurd juxtapositions are the name of the game. She throws anything she can think of into her books, and what results is a kind of salmagundi that sometimes seems disconnected but invariably adds up to something amazing. Her best book is Phosphor in Dreamland, which is an epistolary novel telling the story of the semi-mythic island Birdland, focusing on its most famous inhabitant, a seventeenth-century poet, philosopher, and artist named Phosphor. When I interviewed her last year, Ducornet cited the late British novelist Angela Carter as a big influence (and friend), and like Carter (and Phosphor), Ducornet is a rare bird who defies all categorization.

The newest writer on my list is Richard Grossman, who’s at work on a series called the American Letters Trilogy, which depicts America as Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, respectively. The first volume, The Alphabet Man, which tells the story of a poet/murderer named Clyde Wayne Franklin, is a crazy mishmash of straight narrative, poetry, disjointed hallucinations, and linguistic experiments. It’s a little like William Faulkner on LSD. The second volume, The Book of Lazarus, is even stranger (and better), weaving letters, photos, epitaphs, aphorisms, and reminiscences into a tale of political and social creepiness and ambiguity. Grossman is working on the third volume at present, so we’ll have to wait a while to get to Paradise.

Of course there’s a lot more great work going on in American literature than the wacky postmodern stuff I’m into. There are plenty of conventional writers, such as Tobias Wolff, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Richard Ford, who are challenging in their own ways; especially recommended are Wolff’s story collection In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Phillips’ novel Shelter, and Ford’s novel Independence Day. But as far as what’s pushing the envelope of fictional possibility, this weird stuff is where it’s at.

—David Wiley