Tuesday, March 20, 2012

For the love of the flawed novel

From Emily St. John Mandel's review of Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker on The Millions:

[I]t seems to me that there’s something magnificent about sprawling and ever-so-slightly flawed novels.

It seems so to me, as well. Part of what I love about The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, is the sense that its author, genius as he is, is just barely in control of his material. His writing often has the feel of a man trying to wrap his arms around a large bag of demonically possessed squirrels. The source of his novels' grandeur is struggle, reflected in his characters' existential anguish. His greatest success, like theirs, is not in overcoming anguish but in giving it voice--sometimes seemingly by accident, as in convoluted prose, rushed scenes, and characters who appear and disappear for no evident reason. I suppose if the whole novel was nothing but these kinds of accidents, we'd call it a promising first draft, or simply a mess. But these flaws coexist with clearly defined conflicts with stakes even larger than life and death, masterful set pieces, and characters whose flesh and blood we come very close to actually touching. The flaws, in fact, make these successful parts even better: they roughen the edges of the masterpiece, making it a visceral experience.

In contrast, I love Marilynne Robinson's Gilead in a very different way. As my previous commentary on it shows, I experienced it as a Work of Art that more or less drove me to my knees. It inspired awe, and had the heft of cathedral tunes. As an artistic achievement, I think it deserves mention in the same breath as Brothers Karamazov, but on an emotional level I'm less drawn to it, because it is not flawed. There is no badly worded sentence, no misstep in the (admittedly much simpler) plot. The artist is in complete control, and there is something vaguely off-putting about that. Maybe because I suspect I can never achieve that level of mastery myself. Or maybe it's because consciousness itself is messy and surprising. As Annie Murphy Paul explains in Sunday's NYT editorial, a recent analysis of MRI data

concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers. 

With its irruptions, dead ends, and coffee and blood stains, the map of Dostoevsky's mind looks far more like mine than Robinson's does. Hard to believe, since her work is set in twentieth-century Iowa and Dostoevsky's in tsarist Russia. But there you go.

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