Tuesday, November 07, 2006

New Naturalism

I recently attended a Halloween party where I met another writer. Her horn-rimmed glasses screamed postmodernist, so I tried to keep the conversation away from writing, but this was not to be. She pressed me endlessly for personal details about my writing despite my attempts to demur until I finally gave in and said that I write a kind of new romanticism. She was thrown.

"There's naturalism and then there's romanticism," I tried to explain.

"But you're using those terms in a strange way," she instructed (not said but instructed).

I tried again: "Think of new romanticism as an action genre with killer heroes and extraordinary flights of fancy, only make it say something universal."

"But Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter..." Her voice trailed off, then her eyes opened wider and her mouth drifted shut.

I could see that this was a smarter than average postmodernist. She was getting the point quite nicely. Disbelief, shock, possibly even fear — I've seen it before. Poor dear. Yes, we romanticists are back and we're not kidding.

(It just occurred to me that it must be tough to be a failed postmodernist. Social recognition is everything to them. Success is measured by popularity. It's democratic. But as for me, if my life is going to be worth living, then I'm going to live it my way, on my terms, to the beat of my own classical guitar. I don't need to be liked. Isn't that just infuriating, my dear postmodernist ghoul?)

Anyway, we exchanged a few more comments before she found an excuse to scurry away into the safety of the costumed crowd. It was an interesting exchange. She was especially shocked that I would accuse many modern writers of being naturalists.

"Russo, Dybek, Chandra — these are nothing like Tolstoy," she said flatly. "Tolstoy was a conventionalist."

I noted her careful omission of the word "Duh!"

She's right, in a way. Naturalists used to be serious writers. They knew their craft exceedingly well, and they created some of the most finely-wrought and brilliantly conceived novels ever written. Their history reads like a Who's Who of literature: Tolstoy, Lewis, James, Crane, Chopin, and Fitzgerald, to name a few.

But a new kind of naturalism seems to be emerging from today's colleges. Some fifteen years ago, I was glad to see it. I thought it was a rebellion against the infamous LSD years. Maybe it was, only it's proving to be a poor alternative. While these new naturalists do attempt something like realism — at times even hyper-realism — this time around much of it is gritty, nihilistic, politically narrow, culturally arrogant, militant, linguistically debased, and sloppy. In short, it's postmodern.

Here's a sample from the venerable Glimmer Train Press, vol 35, "Donna Aube" by Thomas Kennedy:
"Already tipsy, he poured a vodka in his kitchen, glanced across the courtyard at the blue and white lamp. It was not even blue and white, it was green and beige. He snorted, stood swaying at the sink, infinitely grateful that he had said nothing suggestive to the young woman in the library. Yet the mere chance that he might have troubled him. Why? She might have wanted me. And? He thought of his dark-eyed student Marissa, of the woman who had phoned him the night before whom he perhaps would never see again, of his ex-wife's once-beautiful aunt with the melting-wax face, and reached up to the box of Havana Wilders. There were still two in the box.

He decided abruptly to allow himself to smoke them both. And then what?

'And then nothing,' he said aloud. 'And then nothing. Not a goddamned fucking thing.'

In the hallway he looked at the photo of his children flanking him beneath the Bridge of Sighs in Venice the summer he had defended his thesis. Realism & Other Illusions."

Mr. Kennedy, you're sooo coool!

And isn't that the point?

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