“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Neo-Naturalism and Jean Echenoz's Lightning

In a review of Tom McCarthy's C from last year, I noted that McCarthy's novel--despite its much-vaunted use of ideas from second-wave cybernetics and Systems Theory--was really an updated version of naturalism that shares more in common with Thomas Hardy than the formal innovations of Modernism. The main innovation in C is that, instead of making its protagonist a Christ-like innocent as in Jude the Obscure, the main character, Serge, is a flat, affectless figure typical of "postmodern" texts. In the year since making this argument, however, I've noted that McCarthy is just one among a larger "movement," including such authors as Michel Houellebecq, Goncarlo Tavares and Jean Echenoz, producing work that could broadly be described as a form of neo-naturalism.

Echenoz's Lightning--like C--focuses on issues surroudning the development of technological modernity as a series of complex networked systems, and its central figure Gregor (a thinly disguised portrait of Nikola Tesla) is  a deeply neurotic man who also possesses an exceptional genius for inventing new technologies linked to electricity. Ultimately, though, Lightning is a far more successful book than C for two reasons: 1) its relative brevity means that its strident antihumanism doesn't feel repetitive, and 2) the narration itself has an arch tone that gives the text a much-needed layer of irony.

At the same time, though, the book is not without its flaws. The first 50 pages, in particular, read more like a summary of events than a narrative, and, as such, will seem largely superfluous to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Tesla's life. Later in the book, however, Echenoz begins to offer a more unique perspective on the events of Tesla's life, and Lightning ultimately develops into a stirring and wonderfully odd little book.

But for all it's merits, my only objection to Lightining is that, for all its ingenuity, it's ultimately the second-best version of Tesla's life presented in recent years, since the best is undoubtedly this:

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