Renata Adler, Ben Marcus and David Shields: Pushing the limits of the American novel

The "poster boy for the end of the novel" David Shields retains a list of 55 works he swears by - few of which are fiction, and fewer still contain much fictional content. But is his literary revolution on track?

Renata Adler.
Renata Adler, the godmother of a new generation of US postmodernists. Photograph: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photo/New York Magazine.

Towards the end of his consistently enjoyable, occasionally convincing memoir How Literature Saved My Life (Notting Hill Editions, £12), David Shields, the one-time novelist and, more recently, “poster boy for the death of the novel” (his description), provides a list of 55 works “I swear by”. A number of fiction writers make the cut, though usually for their journals or criticism, or for writing novels with a low fiction content. Proust’s “commitment is never to the narrative”, he explains; it’s to the narrative “as a vector on the grid of his argument”. The “expository” first chapter of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse- Five “renders moot the rest of the book and everything else he ever wrote. I live and die for the overt meditation.”

The book best equipped to make Shields’s revolution look plausible and even desirable is Speedboat, the first of two brittle fictions by the journalist Renata Adler – who is at the top of his list alphabetically and also, perhaps, in terms of preference. Shields describes the book as an oblique Bildungsroman and an anthropological autobiography, proposing a little perversely that the name of Adler’s narrator, Jen Fein, “suggests that she’s not real, that she’s Renata Adler”, much as when, celebrating his “doppelgänger of the next generation”, Ben Lerner, he calls the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station by the author’s name (“Ben won’t mind!”).

There may not be a category that adequately pegs Adler’s mixture of anecdotes, daydreams, “bons mots spliced together” (Jen’s words), newswire reports, travelogue, “prose flights” (ditto) and punchlines, though if “novel” is good enough for her, it should be good enough for her admirers.

Originally published by Knopf in 1976 and recently reissued (after a bidding skirmish) by NYRB Classics (£7.99), Speedboatunfolds in a grammar closer to channel-surfing (“So many rhythms collide,” Jen writes) than to the novels Adler wanted but failed to emulate: “thrillers, with plots, suspense, and dialogue, with characters and things going on, things which you wish to happen, and things you do not”.

Instead, she produced a book of things abstracted from the feelings they produce: “A girl of eighteen was taking the sun with great seriousness”; “We passed three men, two beating up a third . . . A crowd had gathered, interested”; “A single-story drunk told his single story.” It works by accretion. In the end we have a picture, smudged though not inscrutable, less of a scene than of a mind – nervous, not quite associative, trenchant.

Shields represents one version of the writer as reader. On encountering Speedboat, he saw it not as a beguiling one-off but as a reproach. He has identified it as one of the works that “sent me like Alice down the rabbit hole, never to emerge again on terra firma”. A novel he had been writing about “imaginary beings’ friction vis-à-vis mass culture” became, after the fall, a book about “my own ambivalence toward mass culture”, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity. He has been sceptical of the “traditional novel” ever since.

In How Literature Saved My Life, he ascribes his capacity for discontent to having studied at Brown University in Rhode Island. He claims to notice “a skewed, complex, somewhat tortured stance” in the “artistic work of a striking number of Brown grads”. With its “flawed, tragicomic, self-conscious relation to power/ prestige/privilege”, Brown can be seen, Shields contends, “as a crucial incubatorconduit- catalyst-megaphone for the making of the postmodern American imagination”. (It was the site of the vibrant semiotics class in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot.) Lerner studied at Brown, too – it’s one of the reasons for the doppelgänger claim, though Ben Marcus, another Brown graduate (and, like Shields, a bald one), is a stronger candidate. Marcus’s essay “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It” was filleted in Shields’s collage of quotations, Reality Hunger, for its claim that the term “realism” should be “conferred only on work . . . that matches the complexity of life with an equally rich arrangement in language”.

When he threw down that challenge, Marcus had already made a significant attempt at answering it – a collection of technical terms (“To Jennifer is to feign blindness”) and fabling “documents”, entitled The Age of Wire and String (Granta, £14.99). It has now been reissued, with illustrations by Catrin Morgan that reinforce an impression of the future society that Marcus depicts as being, in essence, autonomous, with little join-the-dots relationship to America as it existed in 1995, when the book was first published.

Like Renata Adler – to whose opening sentence “Nobody died that year” he may be alluding in the faux-historical announcement “No one died for four years” – Marcus does away with the conventional chapter and paragraph while retaining respect for the well-crafted individual sentence: “In the morning in Montana the leg was bound from the ankle to the knee with bacon or hair and then cross-gartered with thongs or strips of uncut rice.” Marcus’s theme is the arbitrariness of reference, his aim to find verbal formulations that reveal the proximity of nonsense to what we take for lucid expression.

Although he shares Marcus’s antipathies, Shields’s proposed solution is very different. Where Marcus wants the novel to operate as a space for the play of abstract ideas, bent-arrow polemic and imagination, Shields wants something essay-like in its directness and engagement. He stopped reading One Hundred Years of Solitude because “I want the writer to be trying hard to figure something out” (“García Márquez, you could argue, is doing this by implication, but to me he’s not”) and he offers as a kind of allegory a story from J Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand in which a novel shrinks from 1,000 pages to eight words: “Tiny Upstate town/Undergoes many changes/Nonetheless endures.”

Shields objects to the implicitness and the “glacial pace” with which most novels trace an arc or figure “something” out and prefers work that is oblique in a different way. Many of his 55 chosen works are mosaics and collages but, he insists, they are only “pretending” or “thought” to be a “random gathering”, or “mere notes”, or a “series of random memories”. For Shields, Speedboatprovides a vision of how such a dialectic might be accommodated by the kind of text that some are content to call a novel. But Adler’s ability – even her desire – to provide clarification through, in his words, “jagged and frenetic changes of pitch and tone and voice” is a rare one.

While the collage novel may founder from a lack of suitable sensibilities, the other kind of novel that Shields desires – in essence, indistinguishable from certain kinds of personal essay – has inbuilt frailties of its own. Some of them were revealed by Sheila Heti’s documentary novel How Should a Person Be?, a book conflicted (at once allergic and craving) in its attitude towards the corrugation of “real-life” events.

So far, Shields has encouraged every effort that coincides with his general desires (as if they could all be of equal value) and his attitude to dissent has been suspiciously evasive. Though he was happy to quote J M Coetzee on the jacket of Reality Hunger saying, “I, too, am sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings,” he suppressed the rest of his response, the bit after the “but”, where he communicated still-unanswerable concerns about “torrents of unmediated ‘reality’ ” and “floods of other people’s thoughts”.

“Of the well-made novel,” Coetzee concluded, “one might at least say that it imposed a formal brake on formless garrulity.” 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction critic of the New Statesman