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?

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

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

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit