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Week Nine (Tues, 3/22): Fiction's Future? Our Future? The Relation of the Two....?


[Collage of Richard Powers dictating his novel]

I. coursekeeping

we'll finish our discussion
of Generosity on Thursday;
for next Tuesday, read the first half of Camus's The Plague,
and come having thought about connections--is there an
"evolutionary" relationship between the novels?
what are your observations?

Paul on the larger picture?

II. Turning back to Generosity

Beginning (again) with the writing....

  • themword: Powers uses very detailed and strong descriptions. While it is good to used detail and strong descriptions in writing, I feel like Powers is going to far. He overuses such descriptions, employing them in practically every sentence. I believe he is trying to make to many references and make it obvious that the group of people he is talking about is creative writers. In a nutshell, think he is trying to hard to make his writing come alive.....I feel that the author is using all of this overly descriptive language and various references to show that it is impossible to tell a new story.

  • Powers dictates all his novels now. As he said himself, of his use of voice recognition software a few years ago, "Writing is the act of accepting the huge shortfall between the story in the mind and what hits the page.... For that, no interface will ever be clean or invisible enough for us to get the passage right" (Essay: How to Speak a Book, NYTimes, January 7, 2007).

  • from Peter Kramer's Slate review: Powers complicates a sentimental farce with metafictional devices that distance the reader from both of his sparring protagonists. Of Stone, whose perspective would otherwise dominate, an omniscient authorial voice says: "I can't see him well, at first. But that's my fault, not his." Kurton appears via the text of a film script... these techniques become a lazy convenience for the author: "Forgive one massive jump cut. This next frame does not start until two years on" much mechanism intruding...worse: low-art techniques of genre fiction... signaling a character's worth by cataloging his tastes in branded products.
  • what's left for the literary critic to do, if the artist himself repeatedly calls attention to the artificiality of language? (why did literary critics take that on as their task in the first place? -->see Judith Butler, in "Gender is Burning": 'reading' means taking someone down, exposing what fails to work at the level of appearance....")

  • [from Networld Review:] Contemporary omniscient narrators can no longer claim the luxury of being spokespersons of authority. We no longer accept the narrator as the voice of God, as readers of an earlier age might have. But using a narrator... is also a way of reclaiming literary authority in a multimedia world....
  • what I find most indicative of the narrator’s merely mortal existence is that he can’t bring himself to snoop around in Thassa’s head. Maybe she intimidates him. Certainly he is far more comfortable hanging out with Russell.... the novel unfolds mostly from Russell’s point of view. Here is a psyche that would feel like a comfortable couch for anyone whose stock in trade is the angst of the beautiful loser ....Russell shriveled gradually... he hasn’t written in years....

III. "Thinking evolutionarily"...what role is (writing and reading) fiction playing in the evolution of the contemporary world?

What role is Powers' fiction, in particular, playing in that evolution?

What might the role of literary critics be, in such an evolution?

What challenge does Powers' fiction pose to the historical role of this form of storytelling?

(per Thomas Kurton, p. 190): "all literature, all fiction, all prediction to date is nothing more than a preparatory sketch of the possibilities available to the human animal"

(Russell Stone does not tell Candace Weld, p. 163): "the real problem: fiction is obsolete. Engineering has lapped it."

Does the Richard Powers think that? Does his novel?
(D.H. Lawrence: "trust the tale, not the teller").

IV. There are multiple possible directions for placing Generosity
in a larger lineage, both past and future...

"So you know this story: Lord Jim" (p. 16).

"... he dreams himself into a Pyncheon novel" (p. 185).

"So, a French farce: yet another story you know by heart" (p. 207).

If people want mystery and imagination and inexplicable temperament, they should just read Assia Djebar" (p. 214).

But the one I decided to follow up on (mostly because I'm an existentialist) was this one. In a typical nice touch, Powers does not have Kurton read, but rather...

"He keeps himself awake listening to an audiobook of The Plague, the novel that defeated him at Stanford.... You want to devote your life to life science? Read this first. He's gone back to Camus after talking with Thassa.... She filled him in on all the context.... She quoted the author's notorious declaration, at the height of the savage war: If I have to choose between justice and my mother, I would choose my mother .... Thomas finds him blindly humane (pp. 248-9).

"The Plague ends... "the bacillus never dies... it bides its time... and perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city" (p. 250).


What role is that story playing within this story?

From Networld Review:
Stress and depression, like the plague bacillus, can lie dormant for years and years. Albert Camus concluded that part about the plague long ago, in his novel by the same name, and it is no accident that Powers made his happy heroine a Berber Algerian. Her native hellhole could have been Iraq or Afghanistan or any number of war-infested countries, but to tie her to the birthplace of Camus is to reinforce what we know the author hopesthat human nature, for all of its flaws, is stronger than science. If you read The Plague as a metaphorical treatment of resistance to both Nazi occupation – ie. human carnage of any time and place – and the absurd, you can truly appreciate the homage Powers pays to Camus.

What is the use-value of that novel in this one?

What is the scientist's response to the literary text?

"The problem is with the craft of fiction. The whole grandiose idea that life's meaning plays out in individual negotiations makes the scientist wince. Intimate consciousness, domestic tranquility, self-making... all blatant distractions from the true explosion in human capability. Fiction seems at best willfully naive. Too many soul-searchers wandering head-down through to many self-created crises, while all about them, the race is changing the universe.... Worse, fiction's perpetual mistaking of correlation for causation drives Kurton nuts.... The trick smacks of an reductive environmental determinism" (p. 249).

"The double-blind study... sets human history ...loose in a place beyond personality. He wants to live long enough to witness a new, post-genomic fiction, one that grasps the interpenetrating loops of inheritance and upbringing so tangled that every cause is some other cause's effect. One that, through a kind of collaborative writing, shakes free of the prejudices of any individual maker. For now, fiction remains at best a scattershot mood-regulating concoction" (p. 239).

What might such new fiction look like?

Have you encountered any?

mgz24:  I think there really is a limit to what kinds of stories can be told....that in order to see the evolution of literature we must look at how many new ways there are to tell the same tell a certain plot line in a completely new way.

AnnaP: Lately, I have gotten really interested in new ways of telling stories, in particularly with comics and graphic novels. As mgz24 points out, I think they are a way of stepping out of the box and of taking plotlines that we already know and rehashing them in dynamic new ways....the Thief says “The best comics must be better than any print-only book. It kind of follows: pictures plus words gives you more to work with than just words alone” (p. 89). Russell counters him with the question “What about interiority? Complex levels of concealed thought?”

Linda Williams's talk in Carpenter yesterday (3/21/11) afternoon on  "Mega Melodrama! Vertical and Horizontal Suspensions of the 'Classical'”: increasing serialization of more or less discrete episodes on the small screen: cumulative story telling of t.v. serials now more aesthetically interesting  and complex than most movies; a “poetics of seriality” as opposed to classical beginnings, middles, ends....

IV. Thinking about new forms of narrative:
what's the role of visuals (film?) in this book?
(Why is Thassa a film student? What's her relation --
and the relation of the book-- to Tonia, the video journalist?)

"I love to look at the world through a viewfinder....
The worst things about life are beautiful on film" (p. 252).

"all existence becomes a prize again, through a viewfinder" (p. 267)

What might the role of film be in the "new, post-genomic" world?

What role does film play in Kabylie?

What role does Kabylie play in Gabriel's video games?

What's the relation of the material to the imaginative world,
in the textual world Powers has created?

"how feeble imagination is, alongside evolution" (pp. 156-7).

"Imagination dies of shame in the face of its blood relation" (p. 227).

V. Cycling back to the heart (and the end) of the book-->
The idea that emotionality is a choice is uncomfortable for some (after all, doesn't the subject of Generosity - the possibility that we could choose to be happy - make us squirm?), but CBT techniques have proved extremely successful in treating a range of psychiatric disorders, especially anxiety disorders, like OCD. Given the success of this treatment, could we then say that Thassa and Candace are right in their assertion that happiness is a choice? And, then, what would it mean to give us agency over our own emotionality?

(with commentary by KT, tangerines, hlehman, skindeep, and Lethologica....)

Generosity, p. 321: I'm here again, across from the daughter of happiness.... She's still alive, my invented friend, just as I conceived her, still uncrushed by the collective need for happier endings. All writing is rewriting.... I am, for once, ready to try on anything the story might permit. What else can I do for her, except defy my type?.... She smiles and shakes her head, as if to claim once more that fate has no power over anything crucial. Which it never really does, if I could just remember. What we have been is as nothing; what we will be is as ever beyond us. But what kind of story would ever end with us?