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only connect: kunkel in the lrb

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Benjamin Kunkel has an impressive review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland in the LRB. And the final paragraph’s the best part:

In many ways, Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis (2003) seems the complement to O’Neill’s Netherland, and is unsuccessful in a complementary way. DeLillo’s main character, too, lives in Manhattan, has a young wife, and works in finance. But where Hans attends to love and friendship, DeLillo’s Eric Packer is devoid of normal human warmth. And where Hans cannot bring himself to contemplate what he does for a living or to look long and hard at something like a new residential tower rising up (to quote DeLillo) ‘in an undistinguished sheath of hazy bronze glass’, DeLillo’s character thinks of nothing but financial processes, and has eyes only for whatever features of New York life vaunt their contemporaneity. The problem is a shared one: though warm-blooded human organisms, on the ancient model, swim through precisely this new urban world of global transactions and glassy-eyed condominiums, it is hard to make both the creature and his environment, the character and his setting, seem real at one and the same time. As a consequence, we don’t quite believe in the life of either Eric Packer or Hans van den Broek; the one seems too futuristic and the other out-of-date, and the exact location of the present moment, as in some excessively literal-minded philosophical discussion, impossible to specify. And yet we know that if we could only connect we would see that the world of financialisation and oil futures is contemporary and coextensive with the world of Hans and Rachel’s separation, and that both of these worlds overlap exactly with the worlds of cricket, Google Maps and sleek new architecture; there is, after all, just the one world or, for the individual, the one life. We also know that originality, in realist fiction, comes not only from capturing what’s historically new but also from correlating novelty with persistent inherited ways of acting, thinking and feeling. But the challenge posed to fictional representation by even the most ordinary contemporary life in New York City (or anywhere similar) may not yet have been met.

It’s a bad tic I’ve developed, I know, but, yeah, more on this later. (When I say that, I hope you’ve figured out, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to write another post on this or update this one – just that this blog is preoccupied with these issues and they will, inevitably, come up again later… Why am I so goddamned self-conscious about my writing here lately? Anyway…) The way that I’d deflect or inflect Kunkel’s very helpful formulation here is to say that from a certain perspective the novel runs on the very impossibility of resolving the micro / macro issue that he’s locating the unsuccessfulness of both O’Neill and DeLillo’s NYC novels in. Lukács’s time / meaning dilemma is easily translatable into this cold/warm blood thing BK’s doing, individual / glass architecture bit. And pace Lukács, or where Lukács went when the Hegelian warped into Marxism, the modernists drew this dilemma to the center of the work. Think this:

He was already halfway to the House of Commons, to his Armenians, his Albanians, having settled her on the sofa, looking at his roses. And people would say, “Clarissa Dalloway is spoilt.” She cared much more for her roses than for the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again)—no, she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? but she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?)—the only flowers she could bear to see cut.

I was going to post last week on the persistence of the idea, a truly noxious bit of critical bêtise if there ever was one, that somehow the end of Dalloway marks an affirmational point of closure (she feels again life, chooses life, it is the gift that SS has given her) but that’s neither here nor there, or not directly anyway. What matters is this: the novel cannot close the gap that Kunkel is nonetheless justified in wishing closed. The gap is like the clot of air that works the siphon, that makes the water flow up hill out of your swimming pool. But there is a huge difference – a difference that you can call the ethical or the political, as you will – between those writers who are aware of the gap, who can’t stop staring at the floater, the astigmatic flaw, and those who smoothprose it down into the stomach of their works without tasting it for all it is. This is the gap between DeLillo, I think, who understands why his work is dysfunctional, and O’Neill, who doesn’t.

(Imagine you’re seeing a huge swath of vivid instances of illustrative close reading right here. I could do it, I’m so sure, but I have no time….And if I had more time, I could have made this make sense, I think. But like I keep saying, think notebook, think diary, when you think AWP…)

I do think, though, that Kunkel is most definitely getting the point when he keeps taking it to Forster, over and over again, here. Forster’s maybe the trickiest case of the issue going – so hard to know what to make of the ends of those novels, the sang froid of the rendering of the dead prole under the bookcase and the happy lesbian sorority that ensues in one, the explosive ambiguity of the deferral in the other…

I have to get back to work, right now… God… I want to say something about the McEwan bit in the review… For real this time, more soon…. Maybe….

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 9, 2008 at 12:33 pm

Posted in distraction, novel

One Response

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  1. (Imagine you’re seeing a huge swath of vivid instances of illustrative close reading right here. I could do it,

    Oh! I am so stealing this style and using it to finish my dissertation! I had no idea that this was allowed— imaginary readings!

    Sisyphus

    July 10, 2008 at 6:43 am


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