Book Review

Copious Agendas

Often while walking abroad, . . . he had such moments of dreadful and sane mistrust of mankind. What if nothing could move them? Such moments come to all men whose ambition aims at a direct grasp upon humanity—to artists, politicians, thinkers, reformers, or saints.
—Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent

Regarding which a friend of mine observes that all such actors (“artists, politicians, thinkers . . .”) are “rhetors,” employing what Aristotle called “the available means of persuasion.” Publicly we live in an age of arguments and agendas (timor Trumpis conturbat me), even to the extent that the arts, which had declared themselves irrelevant (“For poetry makes nothing happen”), are reasserting their right to be in the game (perhaps as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”). Trump was a wake-up call, so we ask ourselves to consider whether news is always fake, whether each class, party, person, gender, and ethnicity inevitably must promote only its own interests, whether the planet is in peril, and whether the humanities are dead. And publishers (capitalists that they are) are always in the business of identifying and marketing the next “great work” only by the criterion what will sell to whatever receptive and increasingly specialized audience will listen. Newer to this game—though emphatically not new—is the manner of the marketing of writers themselves (their readings, their festivals, their signings, their workshops, their websites, their social media pages, their tweets), so that not just their works become part of the argument, a topic Aristotle would have covered in a discussion of ethos.

So how can we not acknowledge that fiction, too, is rhetorical? Its means may be different—with its emphasis on narrative, characterization, empathy, and style—but it aims to persuade, a goal it shares with any other type of discourse. Writers, too, have their agendas. Here is a selection.

Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion[1] documents the alternating currents of modern feminism by focusing on how its legacy is passed on from one generation to the next. One means of its survival is to have charismatic leaders who inspire followers to take up the torch and to become leaders themselves. So it as not incidental that the word “persuasion” occurs in her title and that the opening sequence describes a speech on the campus of Ryland College, way back in 2006!, by famous feminist Faith Frank, who inspires frightened freshman Greer Kadetsky to overcome her innate shyness and join the cause, albeit at the expense of relationships with her boyfriend and family.

The novel is lengthy and for the most part readable and entertaining, but especially, in the course of Greer’s growth, we learn some things about the changing conditions of contemporary feminism: how college has changed in seeking to call out campus sexual predation; how the Internet and social media are leading to the obsolescence of traditional feminist forms of communication, especially magazines; how the discussion needs to include persons with differing gender identities; including the aimless prospects of men; how the pressure of fundraising leads to the establishment of institutionalized elites at the expense of individuals and to the possibilities of corruption and deceit; and how commitment to the cause poses challenges to personal life and identity.

As a compendium for instruction, The Female Persuasion might make an excellent graduation gift. Regarding style, we must try to estimate the utility of its well-worn tropes: whether its uninspired love story, a pathetic incident involving the death of a child, or its stereotypical representation of sex and of weak and powerful men as well as predatory anti-feminist women adds to or subtracts from its persuasiveness. Wolitzer has clearly done her homework and shows her commitment to the cause. Like the character Greer whom she creates, she seems like “a good, instinctive writer,” and the novel moves quickly forward toward its rather lackluster conclusion. Will it convince the unconvinced or simply confirm already established opinions? Who is listening, and who will hear?

Similarly, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair[2] is “out” and deals frankly, and occasionally explicitly, with homosexual life in the upper-middle-class UK among three generations following World War II. To be sure, the novel originates in a bit of cliché—at Oxford among a louche coterie of undergraduates infatuated with a beautiful young “new man,” David Sparsholt—liable to confirm something we had heard about life in British public schools and universities, found in works like Brideshead Revisited. Sparsholt, who is attending the university temporarily before entering the service as a pilot, is attractive to both men and women and has relations with both, although he cannot reveal, or even accept, himself as a homosexual. This episode, which later is proved to have been written up by one of the Oxford participants, encapsulates most of the themes of conflict and denial, private desire and public perception and generational difference that will occupy the novel going forward. In form if not in specific subject matter, The Sparsholt Affair owes a great deal to keepsake works like Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, albeit without Powell’s fuller speculation about the nature of memory itself.

To be sure, throughout the novel David Sparsholt remains a rather remote and mysterious figure. After Oxford, he had distinguished himself as a war hero and father, successful businessman and engineer, and had led an apparently conventional and exemplary life. This picture, however, collapses when a scandalous public “outing” (dubbed the “Sparsholt Affair”) reveals that he has had a homosexual relationship with his business partner. Details of this relationship are withheld, and what it meant to Sparsholt personally left sketchy as well.

By this time, however, the story has turned its focus on Johnny Sparsholt, David’s son, who has been forthrightly gay from childhood and suffers all the concomitant delights, dilemmas, desperations and indignities while he matures, becomes an artist in London, samples all of the features of gay life including bars and dance clubs, casual passionate seductions with questionable, tattooed companions, fathers a child with a lesbian friend, marries his partner, and carries on an occasional acquaintance with the, now aging, original collection of Oxford eccentrics whom his father had known. The point of this latter association seems meant to provide insight into the special social hierarchies and rituals of traditional British homosexuals as well as their tastes and interest in the arts.

Hollinghurst creates a full range of gay types, from the loving and responsible, to the sentimental and emotional as well as the manipulative and bizarre, and while it is difficult to see these characters outside the context of the novel’s overall homosexual theme, they seem human and interesting, neither scandalous nor exotic but normal perhaps in the extreme. A former Booker prizewinner, Hollinghurst is an author of well-styled, well-managed and imagined scenes, not voyeuristic but not shrinking from full representation gay life as it apparently once was lived and is now being lived differently, progressively but not free from the erosions of time.

I’m puzzled on the other hand by the significance I’m supposed to derive from Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room[3] about a prisoner, Romy Hall, serving two consecutive life sentences in Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California’s central valley. Kushner’s angular vision owes a lot to both Charles Bukowski’s Factotum and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son, both mentioned in passing, and perhaps shares some of the latter’s “visionary chronicles of dreamers and lost souls” but lacks an objective correlative for what her subject—female incarceration—wants to promote.

One way to get a handle on its intentions might be to consider how the novel is shaped by a battle of the books that get mentioned hither and yon throughout the narrative. Gordon Hauser, Romy’s hapless adjunct English instructor, for instance is reading Dostoyevsky and Thoreau. Do literary references to crime and punishment and to the American Adam suggest a suitable interpretation of Romy’s character and condition? Romy herself prefers a book “called Pick-Up . . . about two drunks in San Francisco in the 1950s” since it reminds her of “things in the city that I missed.” Other listings of insane penitentiary rules as well as excerpts from the diary of the Unabomber occasionally pop up as potential guideposts in this unusual textual terrain. But so too do allusions to cases in which well-known writers have cozied up to felons: not Capote in this case but rather a reminder about Norman Mailer and “what happened after he got Jack Henry Abbott, his little pet project, out of prison.”

Documentary references aside, it is hard to muster much sympathy for Romy, who seems little more than a common criminal, no existential hero, no metaphysical rebel, no dharma bum. True, she grew up a more or less typical, though addicted, bad kid in San Francisco. True, she found perhaps the only employment she could doing lap dances in The Mars Room, a strip joint noteworthy for nothing except the ease with which she could come and go, its drugs, and its exploitable, albeit predatory, clientele. True, she had a son Johnny, now in child services since she is in prison. True, the severity of her conviction, whose details are withheld, was apparently based on a technicality (were her head­lights on or off when she ran her victim down?). Maybe her two consecutive life sentences were also a bit over the top. And now she is in prison with its brutal and merely punitive bureaucratic rules. And, yes, Gordon, who thinks Romy might have some brains, is just as feckless and defeated as any of the other characters in this menagerie.

So, yes, there is a time-honored tradition in the novel of “rogue literature” (Moll Flanders comes to mind), mixed titillation and warning, licentiousness and an appeal for justice. And as Blake says, “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion,” so we should listen. So, yes, Romy and her prison mates are women. But other than to say we have an “issue” with incarceration, it’s hard to know what the argument is, and where we go from here.

Similarly in Kudos,[4] the new novel by British author Rachel Cusk, the argument seems buried in the situation the narrative depicts, although eventually I believe its parameters are clear. Following on two earlier novels, Outline and Transit, in this trilogy, Kudos represents a visit its protagonist Faye, a writer, makes to a literary festival in an unnamed city, apparently in Italy, where she meets a variety of characters, each of whom has his or her own story to tell. The word ‘kudos,’ it turns out is the name of an award the festival was to confer, described to Faye by Hermann, son of one of the festival’s coordinators, hired to guide participants around the city (he has a passion for precise maps), in the following terms:

As I was probably aware, the Greek word ‘kudos’ was a singular noun that had become plural by a process of back formation: a kudo on its own had never actually existed, but in modern usage its collective meaning had been altered by the confusing presence of a plural suffix, so that ‘kudos’ therefore meant, literally, ‘prizes’, but in its original form it connoted broader concept of recognition or acclaim, as well as being suggestive of something which might be falsely claimed by someone else. For instance, he had heard his mother complaining to someone on the phone the other day that the board of directors took the kudos for the festival’s success while she did all the work.

The passage suggests all the self-important and obsessive preciosity of Hermann’s youth, its complacent inclusiveness of more than you would care to know as well as the boredom it radiates to the listener. But this is at a literary festival, is it not?, where everyone Faye meets has a similar capacity for talking through and past one another in a more or less rapturous display of enthusiastic but often querulous self-regard, all doubtless deserving of kudos as he or she goes along. In the battle of the books, Cusk owes something to Thomas Bernhard.

The cause for which Cusk writes may have something to do with her rights as an individual, her privacy and opinions over and against the din of other people’s narratives. But throughout, Faye, her representative, is being put upon by: the person sitting next to her on the plane; Linda, the fellow writer she first meets at the hotel; the interviewer who spends the time telling her his life story; Hermann; Gerta, whom she meets in the food line; clerks; publishers; feminists; a Welshman; Eduardo; Paola; her publisher; publicist; and translators; critics with their own theories (present company excepted) about what’s important and how things work; and more—each containing a trove of unwanted, personal revelations. Faye, of course, has her own preoccupations, thinking about her son at home and her divorce. Most compulsively, as she listens, she seems drawn to others’ accounts of their personal domestic arrangements. Generally as an observer, however, she seems neither committed to nor dismissive of other people’s obsessive, private narratives, all of them simultaneously interesting and boring. After all, Faye, like Cusk, is a writer, an observer and collector and disseminator of narratives, and has created a new metaphor for the dilemma of public life summed up rather neatly in the closing pages in which Faye, walking at sunset privately along a beach, suddenly finds herself among a group of half-naked men eyeing her “like animals surprised in a grove.” Removing her clothes and retreating into the surf, her eye becomes fixed on one of them, who comes to the edge of the water and looks at her “with malevolent delight” while he urinates copiously into the water, and she must wait for him to stop.

Such is the noise and the distraction of the many arguments we run into, copiously, in the current environment. And remember, this is only a modest selection: what are we to do with all the other stories—immigrant stories, stories of national identity, stories of cultural appro- priation or immediate reference to current politics, not to exclude best-seller bravura and the simple desire to be heard—each with its own argument to make? And who, of course, is listening? Conrad’s point, that “artists, politicians, thinkers, reformers, or saints” all make their appeal to the rest of us, is only more complicated now by the volume of self-interests and the number of media involved. Whatever “dreadful and sane mistrust of mankind” he speaks of is exacerbated not only by humanity’s complacency and ignorance, but also by the enormity of its vanity, so that when a truly exceptional argument comes along, it has trouble listening.

Such, I’m afraid, may be the case involving Richard Powers’ new novel The Overstory,[5] a splendid book with an important message that desperately needs to be heard.

I’ve written about Powers several times before in these pages and have presented what I think has been a reasonable characterization of his work.[6] As many others have frequently observed, he is among the best, least known and appreciated, novelists of recent generations. Perhaps this is because he is so bright and well-informed and takes such an “aerial view” of things, leaping over categories of what novelists are expected to deal with and taking into account much that lies outside many readers’ patience or understanding. Science (especially biology), artificial intelligence, semiotics, genetics, information technology, ecology, psychology, sociology, cultural history, and music (from an intellectual as well as emotional and historical perspective), all at one time or another find a place in his work. So while, at some level, he is doing exactly what we expect humanists to do, melding all thought and ideas into one continuous vision of life and its processes, he sometimes overwhelms us with his braininess and challenges some of our assump­tions that “life” must somehow be different from the complex interplay of its representations (in art, science, politics, religion, reform, etc.).

Although it is “experimental” after a fashion I can think of no books The Overstory actually resembles as much as one of those grand nineteenth-century fictions that attempt to examine life from a perspective outside or above a limited human viewpoint: Margaret Atwood says Powers resembles “the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick”; I would opt for Tolstoy—something inclusively “meta” in any case. Powers’ title, The Overstory, makes this suggestion: that the novel (along with a rather cute allusion of a story told from the treetops) means to take into account something larger than just its characters, larger in fact than homo sapiens as a species in a story even more inclusive than that. In this case, that larger story might be “trees” or “nature” or “the environ­ment” or the material universe itself, anyway something that goes above and beyond the limited and often self-serving perspective of humanity.

Needless to say, such an approach overcomes, or subverts, our usual expectations about what novels are supposed to tell us and crosses a lot of frontiers that are presumed to exist between, say, the arts and humanities, social sciences and sciences regarding how nature and human society exist. So you might, say, think of it as another example of a public issue, like climate change, which pits this or that public interest group against its opposition, scientists against corporate apologists, tree huggers against consumers, elites against expanding opportunities for jobs, etc. In the latter category you might even choose to include writers with an essentially romantic notion of Nature, which they think of as sacral or divine. But this would be a mistake, I believe, if you wish truly to understand Powers’ conceptualization.

What his approach suggests is that we’ve got the whole relationship between humanity and nature slightly wrong and that we need to rethink our tools—e.g., language and perhaps our whole intellectual, social, and scientific apparatus—in order to deal with it more accurately. Another way of saying all this is to point out that great works of literature, like The Overstory, generally re-create the terms by which we must attentively read them, leaving older, other choices of content, style, and form in abeyance. Indeed, if Powers’ approach at times seems both traditional and modern, perhaps it may be a way of saying that literature has “never been modern” in the first place.

I’m borrowing this phrase so I can create a link between Powers and French philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour, whose most famous book, about how to “read” the history of science, is entitled We Have Never Been Modern. In another world of intellectual and academic engagement—where college professors and intellectuals are present but novelists seldom are—Latour and Powers are close intellectual associates exploring new ways of looking at the relationship between humanity and nature and the language and rhetoric we use to explain it. A clue to the nature of their association may come from the following April 13, 2018 tweet by Latour:

Richard Powers’ new book Overstory is probably his best, at any rate the most directly linked to the metaphysical question of the time: how to tell stories about non humans, in this case trees-making-humans-more-than-humans. A masterpiece.

Powers and Latour have appeared on panels together, acknowledge their shared opinions, and correspond with one another. Together they are admired entities in a new field of intellectual investigation that travels, I gather, somewhat loosely, under the name New Materialisms [sic], aligned with other contemporary thinkers who question the questionable “humanity” of humanity and the presumed consciousness of its being conscious (works like Harari’s Sapiens and Dennett’s Consciousness Explained come to mind), a scientific and intellectual “backstory” of which The Overstory is a part.

The Overstory is about trees, not simply trees as stand-ins for human characteristics via pathetic fallacy, but trees as agents whose history and habitat, biology and beingness, are as fully important and implicated in the whole biosphere as our own. Science demonstrates and Powers illustrates that as a species trees do most of the things humans do, including cooperate and communicate over long distances and anticipate future needs—redefining in the process what words like “communication” and “cooperation” might look like. Of the give-and-take interaction trees have with other species, especially our own, much is also known. And, of course, we also know that as an upstart species homo sapiens is the most destructive that has ever existed, busily destroying its own habitat and the habitat of others (qualifying our era as the anthropocene) with who knows what consequences.

Nonetheless, as told through the experiences of a limited number of human actors, The Overstory is neither pathetic nor a rant, though its implications may indeed be tragic. Human beings in the novel are, “sneaky and self-serving, trapped in blinkered bodies, blind to intelligence all around it—yet chosen by creation to know.” And some of them, each of whom has had his or her life decisively altered by an interaction with trees, seem willing to protest and to sacrifice themselves for a new vision of how humanity and nature, and humanity in nature, should interact. Nonetheless, they have little chance to effect change in the face of humanity’s overwhelming indifference and belief in its own self- and biome-destroying creations—hyper-capitalism among them.

Powers’ characters are fully realized and sympathetic, occasionally pitiable creations who, nonetheless, seem also “representative” like figures in older, aka “realist,” type of fiction. His now-mature style, how­ever, is fluid and accessible, sometimes conversational, but also verging on meditation or interior monologue and loaded with jolting aphoristic insights, rhetorically brilliant and moving, producing arguments we should listen to. Dreadfully and sanely, however, we must have our doubts and must wonder if anyone will be moved.

[1] THE FEMALE PERSUASION, by Meg Wolitzer. Riverhead Books. $28.00.

[2] THE SPARSHOLT AFFAIR, by Alan Hollinghurst. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95.

[3] THE MARS ROOM, by Rachel Kushner. Scribner. $27.00.

[4] KUDOS, by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.00.

[5] THE OVERSTORY, by Richard Powers. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. $27.95.

[6] Gain (1998, reviewed 1999), Plowing the Dark (2000, reviewed 2001), The Echo Maker (2006, reviewed 2007), and Orfeo (2014, reviewed 2013).