Are the very real pleasures of being an American in 2011 underrepresented in our fiction? Are the very real terrors of living in other, less functional cultures adequately taken into account when we critique our own? If America is sick, what is the exact nature of the illness?” —
[Warning: this is a Tragos rant you are about to read.]
Sometimes what depresses me about the notion of American fiction is the phrase “American fiction”. Why is the phrase “American fiction” a little depressing, like sitting on a mustard colored couch listening to Donovan?
It shouldn’t be. Hearing “uh-meh-ri-kan fik-shun” should make me say “oh yeah…exciting stuff”; but it never does.
Take the words, “the novel,” or “essays,” or “lyric poems,” or “graphic novel,” or what have you; they give me a little charge. This could be because I drank too much Capri Sun and Tang as a young child. But it might also have something to do with inclusiveness.
The word “fiction” says with a nasally accent that you better, Mr. or Ms., limn some essence of American-ness. You better “capture” (always “capturing”) the “experience” of this thing we call America.
But a “poem”? O.K. Now you’re hanging out not only with Whitman, but also with the Canadian Anne Carson; not only with Marianne Moore, but also with Rimbaud, Leopardi, Qian Qi, Sappho, Neruda, Juana Inés de la Cruz, Baudelaire, Petrarca, Pushkin, and why not: Homer.
A “novel”? It doesn’t need to be “great” or “American” (even if it is both those things), because it’s also grabbing a beer with Austen, Petronius, Stendhal, Vargas Llosa, Achebe, Xueqin, Murakami, Tolstoy, Bolaño, Calvino…whoever shows up for a pint that night.
I was born and raised in San Diego. No matter what I do, think or write, my world and perspective are “American”. I don’t need to try to “engage my culture,” or worry about representing the pleasures or terrors of the American scene. These are ways of thinking I can’t help, for better or worse.
For example. Right now I live in Turkey. I could put the pen to paper right now with the sole intention of writing an epic poem about life in Ankara. It would be an American epic poem. For better or worse. (Fear not: I have no intention of writing an epic poem about life in Ankara.)
Does this limit me, this inevitable ineluctable Americanosity? Yes, to some extent. But also no. Because that’s what reading is for. When Orhan Pamuk writes about Istanbul, that’s my chance, as a reader, to understand the health, sickness, wonder and terror of his Turkish universe. More importantly, it’s my chance to read another novel. A novel that’s in conversation with Balzac, Proust and Faulkner, and with all the worlds and visions rolled into Pamuk’s living and writing mind.
To me, this isn’t at all about a forced cosmopolitanism, about the number of visas and stamps you’ve collected in your passport. It’s about telling “fiction” to go screw itself. Who needs one more night drinking fancy cocktails with a nasally, anxiety-ridden killjoy anyhow?
(P.S.: For anyone who thinks my opposition to the phrase “American fiction” is a little crazy, note that when I was in sixth grade, I made a list of 78 words I strongly believed should be removed from the English language. “Muffin” and “pumpernickel” were among those words.)
[Jorge Luis Borges: Historia de la eternidad. Emecé Editores, 1953, my translation]
I have always felt guilty for sometimes preferring the abstract and general to the concrete and specific. If I were a better person I’d only write Anglo-Saxon monosyllables that mark out not just rocks and lizards, but panetellerite and plumed basilisks. And specifically the ones under your feet (not directly in the latter case, I hope).
But the dirty truth is that I fall headlong for classifications, schemas, generalizations, brands and rankings. For a while I thought this was a moral failing, but now I more comfortably attribute it to having spent too much of my childhood baking in the sun.
The thought, then, that all the “details” endure by grace of the generic? That, my friends, is a consolation and a half.
That there is a Book somewhere tolerating (stomaching!) the presence of this tawny, dampstained, pencil-scratched, black-cased, dust-jacketless library edition of History of Eternity splayed on my blond-wood desk would surely please our man Borges, wherever he might be in his labyrinth in the sky.
Lo genérico puede ser más intenso que lo concreto. Casos ilustrativos no faltan. De chico, veraneando en el norte de la provincia, la llanura redonda y los hombres que mateaban en la cocina me interesaron, pero mi felicidad fue terrible cuando supe que ese redondel era “pampa”, y esos varones, “gauchos”. Igual, el imaginativo que se enamora. Lo genérico (el repetido nombre, el tipo, la patria, el destino adorable que le atribuye) prima sobre los rasgos individuales, que se toleran en gracia de lo anterior.
Lee in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (via goyago)
Steinbeck on understanding America
It turns out that Whorf was wrong, but Chomskey wasn’t exactly right: to some extent our language does in fact make us see the world a bit differently.
P.S.: I am a south paw who bats east handed.
I remember reading Blood Meridian for the first time in San Francisco. It was as if I were a child taken on a camping trip to the desert, but left there on my own to wander among the cacti and snakes. I wondered if I’d ever be found.
After a few hours, I tried to escape by way of sleep, but the Judge, the Kid, the grotesquerie of McCarthy’s West, they all slithered into my dreams.
Which way to the egress, was the question. The answer, after desperate reflection, was obvious all along. P.G. Wodehouse.
For the next three nights, I read Blood Meridian until near midnight. Set the damn thing down. Then burned the 12am oil with Jeeves, Bertie, Agatha, Gussie, and Tuppie.
An invaluable lesson, and a prime reason I’ll never respect Hollywood until they start giving more Best Picture Oscars to comedies.