A combination of reading “Bartleby & Co” by Enrique Vila-Matas and perusing an assortment of negative reviews of my own “Squatter with a Lexus” led me back to thinking about a topic that comes around in my mind with some regularity.
First, a note about Bartleby & Co, a fascinating book about writers who stopped writing. I’ve just begun and already he’s touched on several of my favorite writers – Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Felipe Alfau, Herman Melville, Arthur Rimbaud and Juan Rulfo. What makes a writer stop writing, and why isn’t it okay if they do? One author is quoted as saying that people often pester him to publish another book, and when he says he’d already published two and they were darn good, they insist he publish a third. He comes to the conclusion that they just want him to write until he writes something bad. Only then will they be satisfied! But nothing is ever enough it seems. “More, more and more” is the spirit of the age.
“The spirit of the age” is what the novelist is supposed to “capture”, for posterity, I suppose, and I can appreciate that. Reading Nikolai Leskov recently I was very glad he had gone about capturing all he did. I can’t say I’m particularly interested in the spirit of our own age, perhaps because it’s so familiar it seems trite. I came across a lament recently, in the always lamentable salon.com, that no one has yet captured the essence of the contemporary Silicon Valley office culture, and by contemporary they mean 2013 Facebook Menlo Park, not “Office Space” (which summed it all up nicely, as far as I’m concerned). It’s hard to be nostalgic about the present!
A potential “spirit of the age” which has maybe gone un-explored is the more general, century-long experience of hyper-urbanization. The literature of anonymity. Those of us who take the bus or subway to work are quite familiar with it, as is anyone who lives in a bustling, crowded metropolis. Every day you are in the midst of hundreds, if not thousands, of strangers. In my years working in bookstores in downtown San Francisco, I calculated that I had said “thank you” (meaning “goodbye”, in cashier speak) to more than four million different people. That’s a lot of people, and of those I could say that I probably actually “knew” fewer than a few thousand, and most of them only in the sense of their being “regular” customers. (I was working in a heavy tourist zone). Many urban dwellers cherish this anonymity. They get to have near complete privacy while in public! It can be an exhilirating and even liberating experience for many.
But to capture that culture, that spirit in literature! I thought I attempted this to some extent in Squatter, by introducing a new character practically every page, and only letting you get to “know” them fleetingly at best. Each one leads to another and they are all related, plot-wise, in a fairly dizzying round-robin of a wild goose chase (they’re all after a secret treasure, which they hear of from each other in a sort of whisper-down-the-lane). It’s a short and fast ride, somewhat like the BART from 24th and Mission to Powell St., and along the way you get some laughs and some surprises and some little pathos here and there, and it’s a light and somewhat silly story. “Too many characters”, “Too many stories”, “Too short” are some common responses (though usually accompanied by a “well-written” bone toss).
I find it interesting when city dwellers want depth in their characters, want to “get to know” the people they read about (or see in movies), when in every day life, they really don’t want to get to know people! They look away and keep to themselves. Let’s just get to know the fake people, the ones who don’t actually exist. Much safer that way. We don’t really want a book that shows us our neighbors on the train with about as much depth and time as we really spend with them. That’s a mirror of the spirit of the age, and it’s too soon to be nostalgic about that. Maybe some long distant post-apocalyptic day we’ll want a story about the good old days when you got to see a lot of people without having to get too close.