Comes now the sad news -- from the Upper West Side of New York, but of course -- that "the 19th-century narrative is, of course, dead." This is the verdict pronounced by Hugh Nissenson, the author of a new novel called "The Tree of Life," who told The Washington Post last week that the narrative "will still exist as middlebrow fiction, but for serious novels? Can I write better than Tolstoy? Dostoevsky? Jane Austen? Dickens? It's been done!"
This could be dismissed as the effluvia of an author in postpublication delirium -- Nissenson also told The Post, astonishingly enough, that in "The Tree of Life" he "took more risks than William Faulkner" -- except that it is an opinion widely held in fashionable literary, i.e. "serious," circles. On the Upper West Side and in the writing departments, the traditional narrative is strictly for the birds -- ancient, middlebrow birds -- these days. If a writer wants to gain respect among the people whose opinions really count, the last thing he should do is tell a story, least of all through a linear narrative; that is the kiss of death.
It is also a thoroughly mistaken view of what is actually happening in contemporary literature. Though Nissenson is to be commended for having gone a few inches out on a limb in "The Tree of Life," an imaginative if highly self-conscious book, he has not exactly left all literary tradition behind him in the process. The literary crowd may be loath to admit it, but the truth is that reports of the death of narrative -- like reports a couple of decades ago of the death of the novel itself -- are exceedingly premature. Not merely in popular fiction but in "serious" fiction as well, narrative remains the essential thread around which fiction is woven; its nature and uses may change from writer to writer, but narrative itself is a constant.
Certainly it is true that the 19th-century narrative form, as practiced by Dickens and Thackeray, is "dead" in literary fiction; for better or worse, writers of fiction that aspires to seriousness no longer write long, leisurely, discursive, populous novels about society and manners. It is also true that much fiction currently admired in literary circles -- by serious readers, that is, as well as merely trendy ones -- quite deliberately repudiates narrative and plot in order to concentrate on the word itself; William Gass and Donald Barthelme are perhaps the most distinctive and interesting members of this school, and their work cannot be taken lightly.
It is further true that within the academy, where unfortunately too much American literary fiction is now being written, narrative and story are not much welcomed these days. A writer of accomplished novels in the traditional style has told me of being invited to teach for a semester at an undeservedly celebrated writing department and then, upon her arrival, of being scorned by students and teachers alike for being so out of it as to employ plots and to tell structured stories; it does make one wonder why the invitation was issued in the first place. Raymond Carver, himself a brilliant short-story writer, has acquired hundreds of slavish followers in the writing schools, and they have made a great vogue for the very "minimalism" that Carver himself is steadily moving away from.
All of this can be granted, yet the inescapable truth is that most serious writers, here and abroad, obviously regard narrative as essential; many of them bend and stretch it far beyond the usual boundaries, yet all are in the storytelling tradition. Among distinguished older writers, Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Walker Percy may differ widely in style, theme and subject, but all write narrative fiction; so too does Herman Wouk, perhaps the most accomplished practitioner of American popular, or, as Nissenson rather snootily calls it, "middlebrow" fiction. Graham Greene, unquestionably Britain's greatest living writer, is a storyteller of extraordinary gifts; so too is the great Colombian, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose use of the fantastic and whose shifts in time cannot disguise the carefully ordered narratives he constructs.
The same is true of younger novelists who have published enough to gain respect and readership. Anne Tyler, Martin Amis, Gail Godwin, William Boyd, Isabel Allende, Paul Theroux, Salman Rushdie, J.M. Coetzee -- they are as different as can be, yet all of them tell stories in which characters and plot begin at Point A and move, eventually, to Point B. They make the journey in various ways -- some quite straightforwardly, others through labyrinthine passages -- but all use the essential device of narrative in order to get there. All are aware of prose techniques and assumptions about the nature of fiction that have developed since the days of Eliot and Austen, and all employ them to one degree or another, but all are faithful to the storytelling tradition that is the essential ingredient of what we call "fiction."
To say that narrative persists despite its detractors is not by any means to say that experimentation is undesirable or that the new is repugnant. Nissenson is quite right when he points to "an innate drive in the artist which is reflective of evolution . . . an unconscious urge to make up something new for its own sake, for the joy, for the fun of it." Like everything else, fiction must adapt to the times, and the one thing that can be said with absolute confidence is that the times have changed. Fiction in the modern, postindustrial world is bound to be different from fiction in the Industrial Revolution; something would be quite wrong were it not.
We have progressed, it might be said, from Dickens' David Copperfield to Amis' John Self; from hero to antihero. But the novel itself, though a very different creature in the hands of writers separated by more than a century, is still in essence the same -- just as the theater has remained the same during the long passage from Shakespeare to Ionesco, or the symphony from Mozart to Shostakovich -- and the novel is, quite simply, a narrative form. Take away narrative and what you have is a prose form of some unnamed nature, but you do not have a novel.
Indeed, his revolutionary protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Nissenson himself has written a narrative in "The Tree of Life": Not a 19th-century Victorian narrative, to be sure, but a story in which events occur and narrative interest is maintained. The "risks" he took in it were no greater than those taken by any writer who steps into the unknown, asking his story to take him wherever it will. What he ended up with was a novel: a narrative. You can't get away from that.