Books I’ll never write #4: desolation fiction

As humans become more and more enmeshed in protective layers of technology and welfare, of offices and comforts, it nevertheless appears that discontent remains a consistent – perhaps even a growing theme – of personal and political life.

It’s against this backdrop, arguably, that we are seeing the emergence of a genre of fiction that uses desolation as way to explore what, beneath and beyond the protective layers, it is to be a human.

Sometimes this is dystopian fiction, like the Hunger Games or the End of the World Running Club. Other times it’s a situation in which someone finds themselves alone or travelling in a vast expanse, like the Shepherd’s Hut or The Road.

The core of these and other books is that the protagonists are thrown back on themselves – their bodies, their brains, their survival skills – with no recourse to the armoury of stuff available to them in contemporary civilisation.

Apart from the sociologically interesting question about why people are writing and reading these kinds of stories now, there are other ways of looking at them too. One is by way of comparison with Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’, the existence that is left in situations of war when everything else, most notably ideas of human rights, are removed. Another is in comparison to the existential freedom of Satre, where all that matters in the end is the ability of the human subject to choose that there is nothing but autonomy at the human core; everything else is contingent and inessential.

The book that I’ll ( probably) never write would explore how desolation fiction is a response to the world we find ourselves in, looking at both the sociological and the philosophical underpinnings.

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Alain de Botton – How Proust Can Change Your Life

Insightful, original and amusing, this is one of the finest bits of literary analysis I’ve read.

De Botton uses the work of Marcel Proust to explore some of the big aspects of life – how to be a good friend, how to maintain a relationship, how to express yourself, how to see things clearly, that kind of thing.

In it, he treats Proust with great respect, using his novels, letters and life as guides. We get Q&As, Proust’s characters are used as examples of what to do and what not to do, we get to learn a lot about Proust’s life. We also get a lot of comedy, a tongue in cheek tone that make what could be a hard read into a light one, a fun one – a page turner no less.

But most of all it’s filled with good advice for living a better life, advice which is probably partly from Proust, partly from de Botton’s reading of him, like: it’s important to find original words to express yourself, friendship takes work and the asking of questions, books are important insofar as they make you explore the depths of your own soul, and so much much more.

This is my second reading of this excellent book, and it’s highly recommended.

“The problem with cliches is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones… Cliches are detrimental in so far as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface. And if this matters, it is because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”

Alain de Botton in How Proust Can Change Your Life

“The lesson? To hang on to the performance, to read the newspaper as though it were only the tip of a tragic or comic novel and to use thirty pages to describe a fall into sleep when need be. And if there is no time, at least to resist the approach… which Proust defined as, ‘the self-satisfaction felt by “busy” men – however idiotic their business – at “not having time” to do what you are doing.'”

Alain de Botton on the need to take time, in How Proust Can Change Your Life

Books I’ll never write #1: the role of the coffee shop in US fiction

The diner or coffee shop is a familiar venue with big significance in much contemporary American fiction. So here’s a book I’d like to write but never will: one looking at the reasons why diners play such a big role and what they are used to represent.

You could put a particular focus on American crime fiction, where the coffee shop is well used by the likes of George Pelecanos, Walter Mosley, Lawrence Bloc and the like, but they crop up in the likes of Paul Auster or Richard Ford too.

What role does the diner play?

From a plot point of view, the diner is a way for the protagonist to be alone in their thoughts, but also run into other people through which the plot can easily develop. But the diner is less about plot and more about themes.

First, these coffee places often represent the diversity of real-life America, where all kinds of people rub shoulders, no matter what colour or class. In Pelecanos’s Washington Quartet, in particular, it’s about a Greek diner run by Nick Stefanos and Costa, but it’s a multicultural place frequented by Greeks, Italians and African Americans. 

Second, they function as a public-private space: somewhere where everyone can feasibly go, where it’s independent, but in a typically American fashion it’s a private business. There’s a curious – perhaps curiously American – mix of individualism and community.

Third, it is often used to portray a kind of authentic working class America, where people are taking a break from hard work at all hours. Though in principle it could be men and women, in reality it’s often a very male and masculine environment, with women often just working in the place not a protagonist using it. In Stefanos’s diner the people are united by coffee, beer and food, but also by boxing and sports.

I guess that the cafe is used in different ways internationally: as a place of discussion in French literature, for example, or a site of freedom in Naguib Mafouz’s Egypt, which might make a nice point of contrast.

What would I call this book, that I’ll never write? Maybe The coffee spot: the role of the diner in contemporary American fiction.