Bukiet on Brooklyn Books
Anyway, this put me in mind of Melvin Bukiet’s attack on “Brooklyn Books of Wonder”, as a cute example, I think, of an old guard reaction against the generational change in “literary” fiction. What he’s talking about is “the literature of our time as exemplified by Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers, along with everything McSweeney’s, the magazine founded by Eggers.” Says Bukiet: "Take mawkish self-indulgence, add a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia, season with magic realism, stir in a complacency of faith, and you’ve got wondrousness." In other words: diegesis as storification of self and past; the marvelous; and the non-cynical view of reality these engender. And it’s a generational thing. These writers: “Coddled and cosseted, they’re the first generation of novelists who grew up reading the young-adult pap that they’ve now regurgitated with a deconstructive gloss learned in college.” Pretty consistent infantilisation imagery there. We’ll come back to that.
Interesting how Bukiet sets up Brooklyn as the target of his scorn. It is the “overlooked sibling among the boroughs”, “relegated to a role as Manhattan’s unglamorous adjunct”. It is the exterior into which the bohos have moved and in doing so become an object of repulsion, all those callow hipster-types (i.e. those of a certain age and class and education) dismissed contemtously as "a horde of latte-swilling sensitives". It’s an image of that which was once part of one’s self and now isn’t. That which is disdained and reviled, because at some level it still is, and that’s a horrifying thought. That there are still “latte-swilling sensitives” left in the East Village. And probably in Bukiet’s neck of the woods. Maybe even in the chair he sits in when he’s drinking coffee.
The rhetoric of abjection is obvious.
So what’s the marker of difference here, the focus of abjection? Bukiet compares these works to “so-called young-adult novels that ostensibly face ‘issues’ but pull punches for their tender audience. Like many YA novels, which are constructed for a pedagogical market, the BBoWs insist on finding a therapeutic lesson in their dark material.” Note the ironising “so-called” to tell us “young-adult” is a label to be regarded with suspicion, (at a guess, because of the “adult” in there.) Note the “ostensibly” and the scare quotes around “issues” to tell us that such works don’t just “pull punches” when they face problems; in fact, they are only pretending to face problems that aren’t even real problems. Note the way that “therapeutic” begs to be stressed, spoken with an arching of the eyebrow — cynical, skeptical, scornful.
The end-result in such works is that no matter how nasty the shit that goes down, “the individual has grown through his or her experience, and that’s all that really matters. History and tragedy foster personal growth.” The devaluing is disingenuous, this identification of singular purpose and import, this assertion that prose and plot and all other textual features are of no consequence, unravelling to a refusal to recognise any purpose or import other than pedagogic consolation. That this is “all that really matters” simply means it is is all that matters to Bukiet. This is the only thing that you and I should be considering when we measure the value of such works. If it’s sharply written, that doesn’t matter. If it tells a good tale, that doesn’t matter. All that matters with the abject is that which by which it is marked out for abjection. The scare quotes Bukiet attaches to “growth” reveal that this is what he rejects, that it’s really about the fact — the fact, damn it — that no such growth is possible. That the wonder is a lie. To crib from Stevens: Do not speak to Bukiet of the greatness of poetry; there are no shadows in his sun; there are no shadows anywhere; the earth for him is flat and bare.
Bukiet reveals his aesthetic absolutism when he says, “Unfortunately, it’s false to all human experience to find ‘growth’ in tragedy. In fact, the dull truth is that pain is tautological. The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.” This is an arrant assumption that is utterly fatuous. All human experience? The only thing? One doesn’t learn not to play with fire by getting burned, both literally and metaphorically? One doesn’t learn, perhaps, as an adolescent absorbed in his own suffering of self-pity, from the sudden shattering of one’s life by the entry of death into it, a new perspective? One doesn’t learn from the confrontation with the profound suffering of parental grief for a dead child, how trivial self-pity is? One doesn’t learn, by staring into the hollow eye-sockets of Death, the value of life? Certainly experience may teach us that pain creates pain, that suffering degrades, that the kicked dog becomes a vicious cur. This is hardly the only thing we learn in the suffering of empathy though, when a work invokes a sense of desire and duty to struggle against suffering.
In Bukiet’s aesthetic though, wonder is never a hard choice to refuse surrender, but rather always must be a panacea, an easy answer that denies the stone-cold certainty of defeat. So, these are just “escape novels, albeit garnished with intellectual flourishes.” And: “Whether wonder is an expression of extreme depression that cannot abide confrontation with grotesque reality or merely a convenient avoidance of same, it uniformly evokes deep nostalgia for the personal or political past that existed before we came to this pass of maturity or social, national, or international distress. To reiterate: would that it were, but it ain’t.” It couldn’t be that a confrontation with “grotesque reality” may lead one to see it as ultimately baroque, to marvel in its complexity and confusion even as one is terrifyingly lost in it? No?
No, not to see reality as a grand monstrum means that “beneath the intellectual hijinks lies a maudlin sensibility.” Any sense of marvel at loose in the world implies at best a “mock encounter with enormity.” It’s simply cowardice for these callow anti-miserabilists “to write about bad things and make you feel good.” Not to face the truth which Bukiet has, apparently, hardwired into his intellectual understanding of the world, the searing light of his reason burning away all shadow of uncertainty. Where Bukiet acknowledges exceptions it is in Brooklyn books that match his vision of reality as grotesque: “Besides BBoWs, Brooklyn has given birth to books ranging from Hubert Selby’s morbid noir Last Exit to Brooklyn to Neil Gordon’s garrotte-tight thriller The Gunrunner’s Daughter.”
I’d be curious to read Bukiet now. I’m guessing his fiction contains exactly the qualities he’s abjecting here. I’m guessing it’s maieutic fiction, reflective realism that sets up a problem (but a real one, you know), faces it (but actually rather than “ostensibly”,) and doesn’t, as far as he’s concerned, “pull punches”. Bukiet is, I suspect, all about the personal growth; it’s just that the growth is a burden of experience, the growing weight of awareness that: “What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.” I suspect this is all shot through with the depressive’s conviction that depression is the only valid response, that the world “just is” the shithole they see it as. Stevens again:
They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’
The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’
All I see in Bukiet’s rejection of wonder is a rationalist dogma that serves as self-fulfilling prophecy, the axiom of the maieuticist for whom only their grimacing stone-graven image of reality is truly mimetic. Ignore the fact that rapture is a part of life, that reality is sometimes just incomprehensibly weird; this is irrational and therefore disturbing. The intellect that strives to conquer all, control all, must establish the security of certainty in a denial of these illusions of romance. What is, is. And what is strange or diegetic, is not. But putting the intellectual at odds with the sensational, rejecting rapture as irrational, this can only render all passions torturae. Even the roses look rosy must only seem so because of one’s tinted glasses. The miserabilism is not a conclusion but a premise: What is, is.
Bukiet is right, I think, to see The Catcher in the Rye as the “ur-BBoW”, because “Holden’s famous denunciation of the ‘phonies’ of the world and his own inability to see the way he manipulates the reader is radical wonder. He pierces the veil of appearances that adults are too jaded to perceive. He knows; he understands; he dreams of saving anonymous children. He’s utterly phony.” But that’s just it. Cauldfield’s cynicism is the irony of the postmodernist, an affected detachment as defense mechanism, bitter at the souring of its dreams, but as much at its own surrender to that souring, projecting that outwards onto those who would pretend that they haven’t also cynically surrendered.
The generation of writers that Bukiet is deriding simply recurse that cynicism, apply it to itself. Isn’t it phony to see everything as phony? Yes, it’s all absurdity and bullshit, but isn’t it equally bullshit to decry everything as absurdity and bullshit? View that cynicism with cynicism, and don’t you end up allowing for the marvelous, for exactly the “faith” and “hope” and “wonder” that Bukiet is denying in favour of a view that’s pure Cauldfield: that “the dull truth is that pain is tautological”; that “[t]he only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.” To take this stance and leave it at that is not to deal with it. Even to deal with it tommorow is a form of engagement is some respects.
Isn’t Bukiet simply trying to one-up these writers by being cynical about the oh-so-trite folly of being cynical about being cynical? It collapses back into the same rhetoric of phoniness: “Not to begrudge success in any form because the BBoWs are one and all (well maybe not Sebold and Kidd) better written than the vast majority of genre books that comprise most bestseller lists, but this is bunk.” Bunk meaning phony, of course. It collapses back into the Last Man’s adolescent disdain, his posture of disavowing the naivety of passion: “When they speak in tongues, they channel voices that suggest Archie and Jughead in a puerile fixation on pop culture, often music (some practically come with CD mixes), and comic books.” That infantilisation imagery above? Here it is again in the phrase “puerile fixation.” God forbid one actually feels enthusiasm about pop culture, about the trivialities of music and comics. For the Last Man has put away such childish things.
It collapses back into the rhetoric of “genre”, using it as a benchmark of impropriety — "their books are more insidious than simpler genre novels wherein people manage to triumph over trauma" — but with these “literary” works viewed as even worse. At least the naivety of those “genre” novels has been put in its place; these pretend to be proper books, with complex approaches to trauma, even as in their use of the strange and the diegetic they seek to infiltrate and undermine the literary order — which is to say the self-sustaining absolutes, the “what is, is” of maieutic miserablism. They have the temerity to suggest that “Why the fuck not?” is a valid answer to “Why fucking bother?”