What the Public Most Wants to See

Christopher Tayler

  • The Diviners by Rick Moody
    Faber, 567 pp, £12.99, January 2006, ISBN 0 571 22946 8

When he published The Ice Storm in 1994, Rick Moody seemed to be looking for a workable compromise between suburban realism and what Gore Vidal once called the ‘Research and Development’ arm of American fiction – the tradition of Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, William Gaddis and Don DeLillo. That might not sound hard if you think of R&D as a matter of surface effects: pop-cultural references, metafictional gestures, glazed irony and so on. But for Moody (b.1961), as for Jonathan Franzen (b.1959) and David Foster Wallace (b.1962), the previous generation’s experimentalism was as much a way of looking at society as a renovation of novelistic technique. Writers their grouchier teachers viewed as rebarbatively modish or futuristic struck them as fairly accurate prophets and critics of the image-saturated world they’d grown up in. And R&D seemed so squarely aligned with politico-cultural ‘dissent’ that any dilution of the avant-garde formula was troubling to contemplate – especially if you were both Theory-trained and, in Franzen’s words, ‘one of those skinny young men in scary glasses … who look like they possess massive amounts of data about small-label rock bands’.

During the early 1990s, however, a rough consensus began to emerge: pop-cultural references and metafictional gestures were here to stay, but glazed irony would have to go. This line was best articulated by Wallace in an essay he wrote in 1990 called ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction’. Wallace took note of the speed with which parody and ridicule had been put to work selling Pepsi in adverts designed to flatter the viewer’s superior TV-knowingness. ‘Image-Fiction’, as he called the progeny of DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), was in danger of becoming similarly tainted. Though ostensibly aimed at ‘reimagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago and appearance’, it ‘most often degenerates into a kind of jeering, surfacey look “behind the scenes” of the very televisual front people already jeer at, a front they can already get behind the scenes of via Entertainment Tonight’. What was needed, he concluded, was ‘some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching’ and ‘risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.’

Consciously or not, many youngish American writers have answered Wallace’s call for a more feelingful brand of postmodernism, though in different ways. Funny, self-deprecating and extremely clever in his journalism and essays,[*] Wallace in his fiction occasionally barricades his interest in ‘plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions’ behind uncompromising levels of reader-unfriendliness. Franzen, as he tells it in the writings collected in How to Be Alone (2002), spent several years brooding over his failure to set readers on fire with ‘rhetorical Molotov cocktails’ before starting The Corrections (2001) with a view to providing more traditional pleasures as well as a broad social panorama. (He has also adopted a qualified god-that-failed position towards old-school avant-gardism.) And Dave Eggers, in both his writing and his activities as an editor-impresario, has promoted a puppy-eyed, heart-on-sleeve tricksiness, a postmodernism with a human face that’s sometimes likeable and sincere but sometimes hard to distinguish from the older, ironically smirking variety.

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[*] Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace (Abacus, 343 pp., £10.99, December 2005, 0 349 11951 1).