Saturday, October 28, 2006

What's Become of the Ann Beatties of Yesteryear?

And for that matter, the Raymond Carvers? And the acrobatic Barthelme brothers? Do you remember when Ann Beattie was the Promised One? She was young and her characters were deadbeats and losers and were bored in a very seventies kind of way.

In the late seventies and eighties, characters used Kleenex rather than napkins and drank Sprite, not just soda. It was as if literature had noticed what ads had been positing for so long: that brands are a form of voodoo--their mere mention creates an aura. Isn't it a different sort of character who eats Frosted Flakes than one who just munches soggy old cereal? Well, isn't it?

And Raymond Carver (did it turn out that his editor actually re-wrote his stuff so extensively as to be unrecognizable from the submitted draft, or am I imagining that)? What happened to his empty-vessel strain of fiction?

Perhaps readers grew tired of the mere implication of a story rather than its actual telling. But then, did not literature need to do penance for its past glory? Didn't Tolstoy and then Wolfe and then Gaddis fill up the vessel to its allowable limit with words? That must have been the reason why Mr. Carver chose to make his characters monodimensional, and why every emotion was oblique. I think he had a pact with the literature genie: don't get too ambitious with words. Create a skeleton framework. We've all seen the movie already. We can fill in the blanks.

But that was then. We "get" the brand thing now, and we eat just corn flakes again. We suspect that being passionless and bored is kind of passionless and boring and we probably don't want to read about it all that much.

We've got our eyes on different tropes now. We're reading "memoirs" by multicultural, sexually ambivalent abuse-survivors who are into rock-climbing and have cancer. It's all rich and hearty stuff now: complicated people with complicated problems. Now we can see there was something almost too ironic about all that brand-awareness. And we've heard, haven't we, that since nine eleven, irony is dead? Wait: that's over, too.


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