Friday, February 25, 2011

Intellectuals in American fiction: a plea

It's very rare that a single book review convinces me to buy a book immediately. A favorable review usually gets tossed in the "I'll have to read that someday" bin in the back of my brain, and repeated reminders are necessary for the thought to ever be retrieved and acted on.

Not so with Teju Cole's debut novel, Open City. James Wood's review in The New Yorker has convinced me that it is necessary for me to read this book as soon as possible. Some of the credit for this has to go to Wood, who is one of the most thoughtful and original reviewers out there. He does not use the book as a launching pad for rants on his own pet artistic concerns; nor does he dutifully plod through the upsides and downsides of plot, theme, character development, etc. Instead, he seeks to fully engage the work on its own terms, and he draws out the book's unique perceptions and contributions--without reducing the book to its own uniqueness. If that makes any sense.

Anyway, the reason I must read this book is its portrayal of the lives of young intellectuals in America. Describing a monologue by one of the characters, a student of literary and cultural theory, Wood says, "This is one of the very few scenes I have encountered in contemporary fiction in which critical and literary theory is not satirized, or flourished to exhibit the author’s credentials, but is simply and naturally part of the whole context of a person." This statement brought me up short, as I have certainly been guilty, in my own fiction, of satirizing. (Maybe of flourishing too, though, God, I hope not.)

Overtly intellectual characters tend to get short shrift in contemporary American fiction. Why? There's a logistical problem, first of all, of thoroughly explaining what their theories actually are--as well as the intellectual bases for the theories--without turning the novel into a theoretical treatise in itself. More important, though, is good ol' American anti-intellectualism, both real and assumed. Nobody wants to read about thinkers, right? Thinkers are not doers; they do not take action, which is both a moral failing and a liability for plot purposes. It's bad enough to be sitting and reading oneself, but to read about readers? What's the outcome of all this thinking going to be, anyway--someone finishes their dissertation?

Well, if your character is Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov, or any number of Dostoevsky characters, he or she will try to live out his ideas (sometimes with disastrous consequences). In Dostoevsky, ideas are made flesh. They are not games; they are characters in themselves, in a sense--they are as real and as important to human life as food, the landscape, and one's family and friends. As Wood says, they are part of a person's "whole context."

This is true of Cole's character, Farouq, who's viewed sympathetically but ambivalently by the narrator. As Cole (and Wood and Dostoevsky) remind us, characters can legitimately care as much about ideas as they do about their children and lovers, about understanding their own pasts, or conquering mighty Everest. Intellectuals in fiction need not be *merely* bloodless, hypocritical, or ineffectual--though they can still be funny, strange, immoral, and/or difficult. In other words, ideas are the legitimate stuff of passion in literature; not distractions to be overcome or set aside in the pursuit of "true" experience. The key is to show why the characters care about their ideas so much, so that the reader will care about them too. Don't allow readers to feel simple contempt for the characters, and thus dismiss the ideas.

In fact, those of us who care about intellectual life in this country could do a lot worse than support--and write--good fiction about people who think.

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