I’m reading Oe’s The Changeling to review it for Publisher’s Weekly.
Oe, like Coetzee, seems to want to find a way to write something within the novel form that can accommodate the essay. Or, to put this differently, like Coetzee, Oe is tired of people. Of characters. Of their acts. Of setting in motion a number of imaginary figures who caress or kill each other, who walk down streets only in order to get to fictitious destinations where something will happen to them, who allow themselves to be described, or become description machines for others (“He saw the red haired woman in the blue dress…”).
Writing a novel is less like writing poetry than it is like throwing a party. Except that this is a party thrown by a recluse. Unlike real parties, the novel is a party that goes on for an inhuman length. The writing can take years. The novelist/host must always be circulating among the guests; his job is not simply to keep their glasses filled, but to keep them from merging into one another, to keep them coherent, and to keep them interesting. It is no wonder that so many novelists end up as drunks, ceasing to fill up fictitious glasses and filling up real ones instead. And even if one doesn’t come out of the party with a deep yearning to drink, smoke or pop yourself into oblivion, you come out deeply tired. Conrad’s letters, after he finished his novels, always take on a tone of particular bleakness. In 1909, this is what he wrote to Pinker, his publisher, about Under Western Eyes:
“I wrote you frankly as to all I’ve done. Now I beg to point out that inn the last 231/2 months I’ve written 187,000 worlds (of which 130,000 in round numbers of Razumov – but I am a novelist who writes sometimes long novels—Outcast—Lord Jim. Nostromo--) In the course of these 231/2 monts as two honourable professional men can testify, from July last year to August of this I’ve had five severe attacks of gout – which means that actually I was either utterly disabled or sickening for it or recovering from it. That’s twelve months: but as I often worked when far from fit – yes with temp at over 100 degrees – when most men would be utterly unable to do anything—yeas and creative work too – let us deduct only 8 months; which would leave 16 monthhs of effective health and works out at the average of 11630w per moth. Out of the total there were 40000 words which you told me: “I can do nothing with that” with an air as if it were dirt which it isn’t, you know. But never mind that.”
Yeah, never mind that you treat me like scum. Conrad’s obsessive word counts are the thing any writer knows. I have never sold a thing, a single piece of writing, in which word count wasn’t actually at the top of the list of desideratum. And yet, you will never ever hear this mentioned by a literary critic. Such is one of the small triumphs of art. We cover the word count as the very pudendum of literature.
But to return to our image of the party, the novelist, that strange creature, requires two things to feed him or her: an extended range of social experiences, and no social experience at all. One must keep locked away to write. The host at a party can’t keep getting called away to business. The party will lose its energy, its heart, its strange attractor. In this, as in so many other ways, the comparison between the novelist and God is misleading. God has infinite energy – one just has to look at the parasites that live in the guts of the parasites of ants, or notice the wind pushing a dead leaf down the street. Its unflagging, this obsession with there being things. And if you are the kind of person who is interested in a leaf being shunted down a street, then part of those things will interest you. But the writer’s task is to produce something interesting, not to produce something – even if, at the atomic level, it is word counts. It isn’t dirt, you know. God, on the other hand, can produce dirt in abundance. He’s not worried if you like it or not.
This hosting job, then, is extremely tiring. There is a part of Oe’s novel in which the main character – a novelist named, of all things, Kogito – is obsessed with the news about the suicide of his friend and brother-in-law, Goro. So he does what he hasn’t done for a long time, and watches tv. He finds, to his shock, that he can’t understand what the people on tv are talking about. Half of what they say is incomprehensible.
I understand Kogito – and Oe’s – reaction. When you don’t watch tv and then you watch a heavy dose of it, it does seem to be crazy at first. Especially the news. News is mostly a matter of text. And the texts are about the most complex motives, odd psychological states, the dense clockwork of financial and political complexities. Images are the outerwork – and in fact the images alone, unaccompanied by voice, would actually work much better to actually tell the news. If the news were a silent shift between images, there a soldier being killed, here a Manhattan skyscraper, there a world leader silently mouthing a spieech, if there were no voiceover or commentary, no explanation whatsoever, the news would suddenly be worth watching. But every image is radically deflated by hearty, sample audience tested voices that intrude upon them, that decay these images in their pores. Simply trying to understand the vocal dishonesty – dishonesty that is more than a matter of semantics, but of intonation, of the very grain of the voice – of the news is a distraction that continually leads the novice tv watcher astray.
That, however, is only part of it. Oe’s novelist character must know that he is in a minority – a very very small minority – of the population with whom he is trying, by a supreme and mindbending act, to communicate. With these voices dinned into their heads until they become the very voice of thought itself, it is as if he woke up one day to find that the door to his bedroom had been absorbed by the wall, and that he couldn’t get out (an image, I should say, I’ve copped from one of Clarice Lispector’s cronicas).
At a certain point in time – in the early twentieth century – the European novelists, who lived in the period in which radio and telephones were first making their sinister appearance, made a turn to the novel/essay. Woolf, Mann, Musil, Proust – they cast off the forms devised by Scott, Balzac, Flaubert, or Fontane, and – inspired by Tolstoy, perhaps, or Ruskin, or the newspaper supplement – they subordinated plot, the way the party is supposed to move, to consciousness – or, I should say, to the collective consciousness. That of an Austrian political/spiritual group, that of a clinic in the Swiss Mountains, that of the sphere of society, that of a visiting party going to a lighthouse – we are no longer in the world of adventures and ventures, of vengeful aunts manipulating the seedy desire for ass of a debauched nobility, of a sexed up, dissatisfied provincial wife, of Scot rebels.
The current turn to the essay in the novel is a bit different, however. It is eccentric, cranky, and very conscious of being not apart of the main. It is in a sense a surrender of the communicative function of the novel – the idea that the party is being held for someone, some reader, who will recognize that it is not dirt. It is all dirt now.
Is it the collapse of faith that there is, even, a thing like a collective consciousness? A faith shaken like a reed in the wind simply by turning on a tv and going through the channels? Which is an experience to make anyone wonder if consciousness is defunct, and if all that is left are these inhuman humans, to whom anyone would prefer androids dreaming of electric sheep.
MANY YEARS LATER as he faced the firing squad, Roger Gathman was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover
ice. Or rather, to discover the profit making potential of selling bags of ice to picnicking Atlantans, the most glorious of the old man's Get Rich schemes, the one that devoured the most energy, the one that seemed so rational for a time, the one that, like all the others - the farm, the housebuilding business, the plastic sign business, chimney cleaning, well drilling, candy machine renting - was drawn by an inexorable black hole that opened up between skill and lack of business sense, imagination and macro-economics, to blow a huge hole in the family savings account. But before discovering the ice machine at 12, Roger had discovered many other things - for instance, he had a distinct memory of learning how to tie his shoes. It was in the big colonial, a house in the Syracuse metro area that had been built to sell and that stubbornly wouldn't - hence, the family had moved into it. He remembered bending over the shoes, he remembered that clumsy feeling in his hands - clumsiness, for the first time, had a habitation, it was made up of this obscure machine, the shoe, and it presaged a lifetime of struggle with machine after machine.