The literature of exhaustion, and the impoverishment of the imagination

A view of every town and city in America.
A view of every town and city in America.

The thing that struck me about John Barth’s collection Lost In The Funhouse was that it was as much a literary essay as a collection of stories. Its theme was that our literature was in an age of exhaustion: there’s a sense that all the salient point have been raised; the only thing left is to pick everything apart with self-reference and metatextuality–to exhaust all possible shades of meaning from this large, but still limited, set of tropes that our forebears have given us.

I have to say, I think there’s something to this. I often feel an impoverishment of my own imagination, particularly when it comes to science fiction. Has any recent author really come up with a science-fictional element that’s as powerful as the wormhole or the generation ship or the robot? In my opinion, not really. The internet did come along and provide a boost to SF writers, but the internet is also a bit hard to dramatize. The best one can do is turn cyberspace into a real physical place and after that it’s really no longer the internet. For fifty years or so, SF writers have been reconfiguring old elements and joining them to techniques they’ve scavenged from modernist and postmodern literature and trying to make the whole thing limp along. And, well, it still sort of works.

That’s one thing I’ve been struggling with, recently. The more I think about things, the more everything starts to seem like everything else. People are very different in the ways that they act and perceive the world…but they all seem to want more or less the same thing. And they have thousands upon thousands of different occupations, but at least half of those occupations come down (from the dramatic point of view) to sitting in front of a computer screen and typing. Nor does driving across America help the situation. At least from the side of the highway, every town and city looks the same. Even geographically speaking, all of America west of the Mississippi looks like more or less the same temperate deciduous forest (with some mountains thrown in here and there).

And, of course, I know that the world isn’t the same. Part of the fun of fiction (and poetry) and the leg up it has over philosophy is that it delights in the essence of things: the vocal tics, the clothes, routines, the foods, the games, the possessions, the mannerisms. Fiction is as concerned with surfaces as it is with essences. And in my fiction, I am trying to find my way back to those surfaces. But it’s difficult. The tendency is to intellectualize everything, and reduce it all to the same thin gruel.

Buddenbrooks continues to be awesome! I’m sorry that in my last post, I described the plot as predictable. It’s not! What I didn’t realize was that the plotting is very canny. The tension in the novel is unbearable. You see the characters struggle with these awful decisions, and then they make them…and no disaster happens. The novel isn’t about disasters befalling people…it’s about a slow decay that happens between the chapters. There’s a scene where I am right now where the patriarch of the family (the third patriarch to emerge thus far) is struggling with this ineffable loss of vitality; he’s doing the same things, living in the same way…but the magic has gone out of him. It spoke to me.

(Although I am a long way from losing the magic =)

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  1. Ben Godby

    I think you are right about the attraction of “surfaces” in literature. A few days ago I read “Above the Snowline” by Steph Swainston. I remembered really liking the two books by her that I had previously read, but since it had been about a year or so, I didn’t remember exactly what it was that I had liked. So when I first started reading, I didn’t like it at all; I actually thought the writing was really amateurish and stilted. I thought maybe it was just because she’s British (whatever that means). The plot was really simple and boring.

    But then I remembered! It’s that her fantasy is full of details. So many silly details and beautiful descriptions. And it was awesome. The story wasn’t very good, but it didn’t really matter, because the writing was awesome and beautiful.

    I haven’t read George R. R. Martin, but theoretically, from what my friends have told me, maybe people just like A Song of Ice and Fire because of all the descriptions of meals. I hear there are a lot of stuffed capons.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I think one of the attractions of epic fantasy and historical fiction is that it’s so concerned with the minutiae of life: how people get around, social ranks, what crops they grow, how society is organized, etc. It’s lots of fun. Of course, it’s also particularly subject to impoverishment because it is so disconnected from the author (or anyone’s) personal experience. No one actually knows what a medieval battlefield looked like, after all. It’s all just imagination. And imagination is usually paler and less dense than the truth.