Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Where BS Ends and Brilliance Begins

Yesterday's review of Beatrice and Virgil threw me into at least 15 minutes of serious reflection on Postmodernism and the "pretention" in some novels that can bug so many of us. I feel like a bit of a hypocrite since I've actually liked quite a few novels that, by my definition in Beatrice and Virgilshould be considered pretentious. Namely, there are several novels I count among my favorites that are highly self-referential, intertextual, employ techniques of metafiction, or are otherwise experimental. So what's the difference between the novels I love and the novels that make me want to toss them in front of a moving garbage truck? I'm certainly not anti-intellectual and I don't want to bag on novels that are smart, but there comes a point when a novel can move from smart to intellectual self-gratification (aka, intellectual masturbation).


On of my very favorite books (actually three novellas) is Paul Auster's New York Trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room. They were originally published independently and later collected into one volume.

I found these novellas innovative, beautifully written, and supremely interesting and intellectually stimulating. Auster is self-referential as a character named Paul Auster appears in each of the novellas. However, as I see it, Martel was essentially writing a thinly veiled autobiography of his writing experiences after Life of Pi. While Auster casts himself as a character, it's in short spurts as opposed to making himself the star of the show. His appearances often draw attention to the act of writing instead of expressing his own overt life experience to the audience.

The New York Trilogy also uses metafictional techniques, or draws attention to the "fictional" quality of the writing. When I was in school we often referred to metafiction as "breaking the fourth wall." Instead of allowing us to purely sink into the story, we're made aware of the story in some overt way. Beatrice and Virgil did this, too, so what's the difference? Why did I want to toss B&V at a wall while I ate up The New York Trilogy like nougat? In this case, I think it's all about subtlety. I can see that Auster is drawing my attention to his fictional techniques and his sly writerly tricks, but it seems to work within the context of the story. Basically, I always felt as if Martel was hitting me over the head with a big writer's mallet with I'M SMART engraved on the side. There was a smugness about his writing and his techniques that annoyed me.

When it comes to intertextuality--references to outside texts in the story--Siri Hustvedt is one of my favorites. Her novel, What I Loved, is another of my all-time favorites. She also just-so-happens to be married to Paul Auster. Do they sit around and talk about this stuff at dinner? That's what I want to know.

What I Loved makes innumerable references to outside texts: art, artists, fairy tales and their interpreters, psychology and psychologists, philosophers. What makes it OK for me is the main character. Leo Hertzberg is an art historian and critic. His best friend is an artist. It never seems weird that he should analyze his friend's work or make the observations that he makes because that's his job, and essentially that's his life. The references to art and artists seem effortlessly woven into the text and aren't jarring, whereas Martel's often seemed too overt (that mallet again). Thrown into the mix to make an overarching, very obvious, very "look at me!" kind of observation. In short, he just tried too hard.

I don't want to be too hard on Martel or alienate the readers who loved his book, but these are some of the reasons why his book didn't work for me while so many others that were similar made me beam. I also wonder if the brevity of Martel's work contributed to the problems. In What I Loved and The New York Trilogy, both of the authors were allowed a little more real estate over which to stretch their writing muscles. Points and references and smart writer stuff could develop more naturally without such a whack to the head.\

So I'm wondering whose writing you find pretentious. When is pretention or high-flown, writerly 'stuff' permissable and when does it make you want to scream? What's the difference between writerly novels you love and the ones you want to put down the garbage disposal?

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