Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Let’s face it — alienation is going to become a big theme in this society (as it does on a predictable cycle), and our literature will have to start dealing with it instead of dishing up a thousand and one thrillers each month. The plots that come from an overwhelming sense of aloneness in a crowded world might very well depart from the seven usual plots, especially when we begin to work in the idea that everyone isn’t what he seems to be. Kafka might have been on to something…
There are always tried and true structures to be relied on, of course, and the Greek rules of rhetoric still apply, but I think we can anticipate stories emerging that feel different from quests, journeys, comedies, tragedies, strangers coming to town, rags to riches, and beating the big bad monster. The journeys could become inward and cease to be what we think of as journeys. The monsters could be invisible. The stranger coming to town may not be a stranger after all but a familiar in disguise. What kind of world would this feel like, and what kind of character would help us explore it?
Or what kind of tone would be right for the world of alienation in which “nothing is real”? Think of music again and how Kurt Cobain’s anger and angst ushered in a new sound — how raw and primal it felt.
Or David Byrne’s strange timbre that he used to depict personas who don’t know who or where they are anymore.
(Not to mention Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse.)
How do we get tones like that into novels without driving away readers who are used to transparent prose that doesn’t get in the way of the story? (Another restrictive idea in publishing!)
The material will come to dictate the tone, just as now there’s a fairly generic sound to most novels — that sound that lets the plot and characters do their unsurprising things without interference from the writer. It’s a little like the way plays are still performed on the proscenium stage; the stage doesn’t literally get in the way of the play, but it does limit what the play can do. There’s a theater group in San Francisco, as a matter of fact, that performs in unlikely venues like a Civil War era fort or a World War II troop ship. The effect can be disorienting, but it produces a completely different kind of experience than the traditional stage, and that’s what we need in fiction: the technical equivalent of performing a play in a different setting. The fictional voice has to change to open up possibilities for a new experience.
Yes, many have tried. Many have succeeded too. Donald Barthelme. Robert Coover. A.M. Homes, David Foster Wallace, Annie Proulx, Stephen Dixon, Ali Smith, along with lots of others. But the paradigm never seems to change as a result. Instead, tiny niches are created where what’s typically called “experimental” fiction can be practiced without injuring anyone’s sensibilities. Mainly because hardly anyone reads experimental fiction. The new paradigm may well be hiding inside some of these works but they’re like bottom-dwellers in the ocean: no one ever sees them. They don’t hurt anyone. They just do what they do.
Because success breeds success in our culture, it’s hard to introduce something new without going through a very slow evolution, almost by changing things subliminally until the new thing feels acceptable. But by then it’s not new any longer.
This means we practice nearly invariable imitation. The fallacy is that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but no real artist will be satisfied with a career based on nothing but that. Artists have “influences,” and even the best of the best have influences. It’s a matter of what we do with the materials and methods handed down by our influences. It’s how we take the clay they used and find new shapes to mold out of it. It’s how we take the story-telling brilliance of Dickens, for example, and adapt it to the themes and aesthetic character of our own day. We should be taking the most innovative writers of the 20th century and extrapolating what they did into the near future, paving the next few miles ahead of us. Otherwise what they did were just detours, or appendages on a larger, sedentary art form.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the vision or skill to do what I’m suggesting. I’m not adept enough — despite my best efforts — and I’m not daring enough either. It will take a nearly mad creator, or at least a brazen one, to bust through the wall of conformity. Someone like a Van Gogh or a Robin Williams, or another David Foster Wallace, for that matter. And he will do something so different and revolutionary that big publishing has to take notice and embrace it.
The change has to come eventually, or the novel stagnates and dies.
© 2016 by Kevin Brennan