Doctorow’s Brain

Chris Bachelder
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

1. The ­Barthelme- Saunders Paradox

Named for Am­erican writers Donald Bar­thelme (1931–1989) and George Saunders (1958–), neither of whom is considered a realist. The Barthelme-Saunders Para­dox (occasionally cal­led the Mimetic Paradox or, vulgarly, the BS Paradox) is typically represented by contiguous postulates:


I think everybody is a realist. I do not think that we have a choice. The nature of consciousness is such that we are always doing realism. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. We are always writing about the world. I have a formulation for this idea: art is the true account of the activity of the mind.


Realism is nonsense, when you think of it. I mean, there is no such thing. Nobody writes realism, if realism is defined as “fiction that is objective and real and not distorted, but is just, you know, normal.” … What I find exciting is the idea that no work of fiction will ever, ever come close to “documenting” life. So then, the purpose of it must be otherwise.

The paradox can be resolved easily enough by showing that the two writers rely on radically different definitions of realism to arrive at their postulates. Barthelme defines realism as the accurate correspondence between the artist’s mind and art—accordingly, everyone is a realist. Saunders defines realism as the accurate correspondence between art and reality—accordingly, nobody is a realist. Barthelme’s definition emphasizes intent; Saunders’s definition emphasizes technique.1 (But both writers agree that the distinction between realism and nonrealism is specious.) When you apply different definitions to the world, you get different categories. Fine, but the problem now is that the term realism has been stretched to meaninglessness (a process called Terminal Elasticity). When a term can be rendered useless by two different lines of argument—and those lines are mutually exclusive—that term has ceased to do much work. Realism, as Barthelme said in the same interview from which his Inevitability Postulate was derived, “is kind of a sloppy category.”

2. Doctorow’s Brain

The infamous “Doctorow’s Brain Problem” goes like this:

Imagine two contemporary American philosopher-novelists, ce­lebrated and cerebral, beards gone gray. They are similar in intellect and accomplishment, but they differ markedly, even diametrically, in their views on the relationship between literature and reality.

The first of these imaginary men, call him Novelist A, is an old-fashioned optimist about the possibility of human knowledge. For evi­dence of the human mind’s ab­ility to grasp the world beyond it, he’ll point you to Galileo, Jonas Salk, or the Curies, Marie and Pierre, the wedded codiscoverers of radium. He might go tell you to kick a rock if you doubt its existence. Novelist A knows that the word apple might conjure for him a Golden Delicious and for you a Granny Smith, that the tricky short-hop bouncer to third base could be ruled either a hit or an error, and that the platypus poses categorical difficulties, but ultimately he believes that language refers to something outside of itself, that our natural categories are discovered and not imposed, and that our hard-won knowledge corresponds, more or less accurately, to a world beyond the knower. The Enlightenment, for Novelist A, was a really good time, and aptly named. Furthermore, Novelist A be­lieves that the novel, despite its fictionality, can create knowledge; he holds that the novel is as capable as the most sophisticated lab equipment of discovering a mind-independent truth. Imagine that in in­terviews, Novelist A makes pro­­vocative comments such as:

  • I am committed to the proposition that the imagination produces and finds truth. 

  • If I didn’t think I was telling the truth, I wouldn’t write.

  • The presumption in the novelist’s mind is that fiction is better than anything else, I mean more capacious as to truth, reality, than any other discipline. That the novelist, with the equipment of his trade, has more of a chance to see. Be­cause fiction is the discipline that includes all the others. 

  • Fiction is, finally, a system of knowledge—that’s what I believe it to be.

  • Fiction is an ancient way of knowing, the first science.

Now imagine Novelist A’s epistemological doppelgänger. Novelist B is, despite a happy childhood and a loving family, a postmodernist. He is skeptical, if not dismissive, of human claims to know. What is human history, he’ll ask, if not a long, inglorious record of fanatical adherence to ideas that have since been rejected? Geocentrism, phre­n­ology, the At­kins Diet. And given this record, who are we to think that what we now think is any ­better or more accurate? Language, for Novelist B, is an arbitrary and metaphorical system that leads us away from the “real world” that it purportedly names and de­scribes. We are trapped, says Novelist B, not only within language and our hapless scientific method, but also within our historical moment and our situated subject positions, such as race, class, gender, age, sexuality, haircut, etc. Since we have no un­mediated access to the world, all we have are our stories, which even if not truth-seeking or knowledge-producing, are at least a way to superimpose a comforting order and value upon a chaotic, unknowable world. Imagine that in interviews, Novelist B makes provocative comments such as:

  • Any novel, any poem, any piece of art substitutes one world for another. I believe that we are all in the act of composition constantly. The values and judgments we bring to events determine what those events are.

  • A book is an illusion, obviously, in not being a stone or a wall or a table. It’s a construct of language. Language itself is, in one sense, totally artificial. It’s a set of sounds and symbols, so whatever depends on those sounds and symbols is illusory.

  • I am thus led to the proposition that there is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction: there is only narrative.

  • One of the governing ideas of [my novel] is that facts are as much of an illusion as anything else.

  • There is no history except as it is composed. That is why history has to be written and rewritten from one generation to another. The act of composition can never end.

What these two imaginary novelists present, in brief, is a truth-based epistemology versus a ­narrative-based epistemology, fiction as science versus fiction as illusion. Or, put another way, literature as clear glass window (to be looked through) versus literature as stained glass window (to be looked at). Admittedly, Novelist A and Novelist B seem like straw men, their positions tidily and starkly op­posed. It’s difficult to believe that they are two real people, and in fact they are not. Novelist A and Novelist B are, in fact, one person. The comments above—both A’s quaint belief in the novel’s powers of divination and B’s hip acceptance of foundationlessness—were made by the same novelist. Two conflicting epistemologies from a single source—E. L. Doctorow.2

What does this mean? What does it mean that one of the best American novelists of the past forty years contains these divergent ­voices in his head and in his work?3 Is it evidence of the fundamental irrationality of the artist? Is it a joke played on those who seek pat answers about art or the artist, those who would read Conversations with E. L. Doctorow from cover to cover? Multiple personality disorder? Negative capability? A Whit­manesque celebration of self-refutation and largeness? Does it hint at some Doctorovian epistemology, effulgently complex and con­sistent, at which our mortal eyes cannot gaze?

It has to mean something, doesn’t it?

3. Funny Pages

Joyce’s snotgreen, scrotum­tightening sea inspires faith in the power of adjectives, yet the best we ever came up with to describe our literary era—and certain books and writers within it—is postmodern. We’re still postmodern—have you noticed?—even though the word is stretched out and faded after decades of heavy use, even though literary postmodernism—the thing, the signified—has been pronounced dead every six months since the mid-’70s.

There was a time (c. 1989?) when the term postmodern became too meaningful to mean. A word can mean so many things that it is emptied of sense or significance (see Terminal Elasticity). The label was used to describe our era or cultural/historical moment, a broad category of art, a broad category of fiction, a writer who produces such fiction, and almost every single element of fiction within a book: genre, premise, style, point of view, character, form, setting, theme, or worldview. The signifier postmodern performed its own postmodernity—the signified was indeterminate, meaning was de­ferred. Researchers have found that there was at least a decade—maybe even two—during which the term postmodern had as many meanings as users. The word was used to drive livestock across the prairies. It was whispered to swaddled babies, who fell fast asleep.

The semantic difficulties associated with the word postmodernism, as it was used until fairly recently, arose primarily from the fact that it was both a rhetorical and a philosophical term. That is, it could signify both a writer’s means and ends. There was postmodern technique (much of which was the extension of modernist experimentation)—fragmentation, collage, shifting points of view, lists, metafiction, narrative use of nonnarrative forms, intertextuality, intermingling of genres and registers, etc.—and there was postmodern epistemology, which emphasized radical subjectivity, indeterminacy, contingency, chaos, unknowability, and the social construction of nearly everything. Postmodernism as epistemological theory positioned itself against the Enlightenment, objectivity, truth, foundationalism, coherence, presence, unity, reference, knowledge, nation, God, and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. When you came across the term, you couldn’t always tell if the user meant formal hijinks or an assault on Western rationality. Or both. Or something else altogether.

But here we are in the future, here in our shiny silver bodysuits, still using the word to describe Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel. It’s a curious lexical phenomenon: the definition of postmodern, at least as it is applied to literature, has narrowed over time. Postmodern means more today than it ever has before—because it means less. As the term is now used—especially by reviewers—it almost always signifies a formal or typographical quality of the fiction.4 It describes little more than writing that, to use Flannery O’Connor’s expression, “looks funny on the page.” (“If it looks funny on the page,” O’Connor once said, “I don’t read it.” Hence O’Connor’s Razor, also called the O’Connor Diagnostic: If it looks funny on the page, it’s postmodern.) The adjective postmodern is very often employed to modify stunts, tricks, and gimmicks, and its general connotative value, at least for mainstream re­viewers, is somewhere between neutrally descriptive and pejorative. Indeed, its closest synonym might be gimmicky. Postmodern has become, then, almost exclusively a technical, formal, or rhetorical term. We have dispensed, for the most part, with the epistemological dimensions of postmodernism, and we now have a postmodernism that is paper deep.5 For that matter, we now have a postmodernism that is modernism. You don’t really even need to read a book to diagnose it as postmodern. All you have to do is sort of flip through it. If there are 536 numbered sections (as in Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever), if there is a photograph of a roller coaster or a doorknob (as in Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), if there are copious footnotes (as in Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine), then it’s post­modern. You know what they say: if it looks vaguely like a duck as you speed past it, then by God it’s a duck.

This is all fairly harmless, and, frankly, it’s nice, after all of these years, to know what postmodern means when you come across the word. But it does create some taxonomic oddities. O’Connor’s Ra­zor can turn old-school humanists into wacky postmodernists. For instance, Julian Barnes’s novel A History of the World in 10 12 Chapters contains a foldout color image of Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa (postmodern!), and yet the novel also contains an eloquent and thematically crucial essay on Love—about how, you know, love is really important and necessary, about how we’re all doomed without it. The sort of grand foundationalist narrative that heyday postmodern critics would have gone after with chain saws.

4. Realism Without Reality

A  basic but important point: realism is both a philo­sophical and a lit­erary term. In philosophy, realism is the general proposition that the physical world exists independently of our perceptions of it. Most realists defend the human mind’s ability to form more or less accurate knowledge of the mind-independent world through the use of our senses and self-correcting methodology, a dialectic between theory and evidence. (Doctorow A is a realist in this sense.) In literature, realism is a mode of representation that attempts to imitate life, to give readers an experience that feels similar to the way they experience the world. Literary realism is an aesthetic theory, a school of writing (or writers), and most notably it is a set of techniques for achieving a mimetic objective (these techniques include specificity and careful description, straightforward point of view, credibility in premise, character, conflict, dialogue, and action).

It is easy to see how philosophical and literary realism go hand in hand. To render the world carefully and accurately for a reader, a writer presumably requires access to it, knowledge of it (as well as the assumption that it exists). Philosophical realism would seem to be a precondition for literary realism. Indeed, the realist novel has traditionally been a rational, epistemic document. It is preoccupied with reason and motive, its plot is structured according to principles of cause and effect, and it moves toward clarity, certainty, and knowledge.

However, in the Doctorovian Era we have witnessed the emergence of a subgenre of literary realism that is, philosophically speaking, antirealist (or what used to be called postmodern). These are strange works, both meticulous and dubious. They are postmodern novels in disguise: O’Connor’s Razor doesn’t touch them. This is the inverse of the humanist novel that looks funny on the page—the radically skeptical novel that looks sober and upstanding on the page. The former has postmodern means, not ends; the latter has postmodern ends, not means. This strand of realism uses realist premise, plot, and technique to suggest the unknowability of the world, the lack of correspondence between narrative and reality. To reality it holds up a white flag, not a mirror.

It should come as no surprise to find the emergence of the mimetically anxious novel during the last half century, during which metaphysicians and theorists of language, history, and science have launched sustained attacks on no­tions of objectivity, truth, and knowledge. Meanwhile, “the world” or “reality” has become in­creasingly weird, absurd, and complicated—more difficult, certainly, to contain and to represent in fiction, even for those writers who still believe in “reality.” A writer does not have to subscribe to the philosophical quarterlies to understand or feel this crisis of representation. For several decades now, this anxiety about telling stories has been trickling down into our stories—not just large-canvas works that explicitly thematize epistemology or historiography, such as Doctorow’s Ragtime or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, but circumscribed domestic novels and suburban novels as well. The distrust of authority and knowledge—the anxiety about the re­portorial and representational functions of the novel—has created new kinds of stories, new narrative strategies and structures. Within these new versions of the old novel of report, we find that evidence is either lacking or that it is abundant but not accretive; the narrative reports are painstaking but inconclusive. What the characters and narrators of some contemporary novels come to know is that they don’t know. And can’t.

Six notable examples:

So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), by William Maxwell. When the unnamed narrator of this short novel was a child, his friend’s father committed murder, which ended the friendship between the boys. Decades after the murder, the troubled narrator reconstructs the events leading up to the murder as a way to cope with his grief and shame. This reconstruction is based almost entirely on imagination and speculation, sympathetic guesswork. About this the narrator is forthright: “In talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.” The point of view of the novel is its most interesting and innovative technical element. Be­neath the umbrella of first-person, the narrator constructs a fragmented story in third-person, focalized through multiple characters, including a dog. The recurring white space between narrative chunks in the narrator’s reconstruction is suggestive of the gaps and holes in the story, its lack of verifiability or solidity. “I would be content to stick to the facts,” the narrator tells us, “if there were any.”

That Night (1987), by Alice McDermott. A companion to Max­well’s novel. A middle-aged nar­rator, unnamed, recounts a ­tragic event from her childhood. The veracity of her report is attenuated not only by the “cowardly incompetence of memory” but also by the fact that she could not possibly have been present during many of the events that she narrates firsthand. McDermott radically violates first-person point of view as her narrator achieves occasional omniscience, impossibly conveying what other characters were doing, thinking, and saying decades ­earlier. Thus the narrative moves out of the realm of reportage and into the realm of imagination, speculation, creation. (The narrator uses the word seem and its variants eighty-five times in 177 pages, just one of the many ways she makes you doubt the depiction of the world outside the window.) Like Maxwell’s narrator, McDermott’s narrator has become the novelist, building a coherent and dramatic story from the available scraps of evidence. As it cannot be read as an accurate account of an event or its participants, the novel is clearly an account of the narrator—her hi­story, disappointments, desires. “Even children know,” she tells us late in the novel, “you cannot separate the tale from the teller.”

Jazz (1992), by Toni Morrison.6 Ten pages from the end of this novel, without having mused on the complications of memory or perception—indeed, barely having stepped forward as a character—the unnamed narrator informs us that she has, in telling this love story, “missed it altogether.” She has not been reporting what really happened, but only what she wanted to happen, what she thought should happen, what she imagined might have happened. She con­fesses to overreaching, meddling, and believing that her view “was the only one that was or that mattered.” She comes clean, but she does not seem particularly contrite, embarrassed, or chastened. What she has done, apparently, is natural, unavoidable. As another character in Jazz, Mrs. Trace, says, “What’s the world for if you can’t make it up the way you want it?”

The Virgin Suicides (1993), by Jeffrey Eugenides. In a desperate attempt to understand the suicides of the five Lisbon girls,7 the unnamed narrators obsessively compile ninety-seven exhibits (Exhibit No. 1 is a snapshot of the Lisbon house—“It was June 13, eighty-three degrees out, under sunny skies”). The preponderance of data and evidence, however, ultimately leads nowhere. In the end, the neighborhood boys “are certain only of the insufficiency of explanations.” The narrators—the failed report is narrated in first-person plural—have a startling effect but no compelling cause, and they sadly come to understand that they will never know the reason(s) for the girls’ deaths. Nothing adds up, nothing coheres. Like The Crying of Lot 49, this novel, Eugenides’s first, is a novel about the failure of the novel.

In the Lake of the Woods (1994), by Tim O’Brien. The unnamed narrator, another obsessive and frustrated fact-hunter, attempts to solve the disappearance of Kathy Wade, whose husband, a ruined political candidate and a Vietnam veteran with horrible secrets, may or may not have killed her by pouring boiling water on her face. Though realist in its approach to premise, setting, character, and dialogue, the novel has its postmodern flourishes. It is written as a report, with occasional footnotes, sections called “Evidence” and “Hypothesis,” and epistemologically confident chapter titles (“The Nature of Loss,” “The Nature of Marriage,” “The Nature of Politics,” etc.). In a chapter called “What Was Found,” we learn that “nothing at all was found.” The facts pile up, but as in The Virgin Suicides, the only certainty is that “nothing at all [is] certain.” Evidence, the narrator tells us, “is not truth. It is only evident.” The word maybe occurs twenty-eight times in one six-page “Hypothesis” chapter.8

Night Train (1997), by Martin Amis.9 In this novel, not written by an American but set in the U.S., Amis detonates the police procedural, a genre whose basic plot is based on science and knowledge formation—the mind of the detective coming gradually to know the world. This is a genre obsessed with—and reliant upon—testable and correctable hypothesis, me­thod, observation, evidence, reason, probability, motive, coherence. What seems random or chaotic re­solves into pattern and clarity. Amis’s Detective Mike Hoolihan (a woman—a very tough woman) investigates the mysterious death of the young, beautiful, talented, pre­ternaturally cheerful Jennifer Rock­­­well, the daughter of Hoolihan’s close friend and former boss. Strange evidence mounts and fi­nally suggests, rather definitively, a suicide. So in one sense both the case and the novel have traditional closure. But both remain agonizingly unresolved because there is no conceivable motive for Jennifer’s suicide. Detective Hoolihan tenaciously investigates all possible angles for both murder and suicide, but the clues are false and the leads lead nowhere. The case is “all hole.” The successful investigation arrives at the horrific conclusion that there is no clear and compelling motive. Hoolihan’s ace de­tective work solves the case, but is powerless to solve Jennifer’s mind, which is as unreachable as the distant galaxies that she studies (she’s an as­tronomer). Ultimately, the un­known (and unknowable) overwhelms the known. As Jennifer’s boss explains to Hoolihan: “The truth is that human beings are not sufficiently evolved to understand the place they’re living in. We’re all retards. Einstein’s a retard. I’m a retard. We live on a planet of re­tards.”


Each of these novels contains meticulously rendered, “realistic” accounts of events that did not happen (in the world of the novel) or of events whose only meaning is that they have no discernible meaning. All are narrated in first-person, which is significant. It is easier to demonstrate unknowability (of an event, the past, another person) by di­rectly dramatizing the interaction between the mind and world—the groping attempts to find truth, build reliable knowledge. In most third-person novels, readers bracket certain questions—who is this narrator and how does he/she know this information?—but we would be less likely to do so in a novel that is explicitly about the problems of knowing. (Realist novels, strictly re­garded, generally use impersonal, in­visible narrators who do not emerge as characters.) Consequently, third-person narration, which has an objective status, would likely be an untenable point of view in a novel that thematizes subjectivity and indeterminacy.

The narrators of these books—obsessed but unable to produce an accurate report about the objects of their obsession—respond to the in­tractable world in one of two ways. One response is anguish, despair. This is the reaction of the frustrated scientist, the child of the En­lightenment, whose reliable me­thodology has failed and who is forced to report that the report has produced nothing. These scientist-narrators cannot determine causality or pattern—the meaning of their reports is that there is no meaning, only chaos and uncertainty. Doctorow A claimed that fiction is the first science, but these are novels of futile science—the ex­hibits, evidence, hypotheses, and de­tective work all add up to nothing. The use of scientific me­thodology and narrative form is thus grimly ironic. The other re­sponse is artistic, novelistic, perhaps more distinctly postmodern—the novelist/narrators invent reality, create a homemade knowledge that is subjectively meaningful, perhaps achieving some sense of comfort or order in the process. If truth is unavailable, if it cannot be discovered, then it must be produced through a cohesive, wholly in­vented narrative. Meaning and pattern are imposed upon the world. With Doctorow B they agree that there is no fiction or nonfiction, just narrative.10

5. The Hemon Hypothesis

Making the world up the way you want it can seem like a philosophy of liberation and antiauthorit­arianism, a corrective to the fundamentalist truths handed down by politicians, generals, scientists, ad­vertisers, and religious leaders. It can even seem powerfully democratic and self-affirming. A different world and truth for every citizen! Each of us a bold cartographer in the unknowable ontological wilderness. There is no denying that this epistemological skepticism has produced excellent novels. Novels with questions are better than novels with answers, or so it is widely believed. But is radical in­determinacy a dead end, artistically speaking? That is, how many different beautiful or powerful ways can we find to say that we don’t know anything, that the world outside of our heads is forbiddingly complicated, that memory is fan­tasy, that we’re trapped inside ourselves? In this mode we risk a sort of antididactic didacticism, novels whose delimited conclusions are as foregone as those of the most tendentious political screeds. We risk the novel that eats itself to stay alive, producing the knowledge that there is no knowledge. The ab­sence of truth is itself a truth claim, on one hand meager and on the other hand grand, totalizing.

An epistemology has consequences: It determines the kinds of stories you can tell, and how you can tell them. When you remove ontology from your theory of knowledge—when good ­old-fashioned reality can no longer ad­judicate truth claims—what new cri­teria fill the void? Why prefer one version of reality to another? Authority then becomes an issue of the appearance of control, of telling powerful (though unverifiable) ex­planatory stories. Thus the Gladney Exemplum, named for Jack Glad­ney’s adolescent son, Heinrich, in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. After the airborne toxic event, Heinrich becomes the star of the evacuation shelter simply be­cause he has converted the overwhelming chaos and data (much of which is hearsay and speculation) into a coherent, charismatic explanation. His fellow evacuees, afraid and un­certain, gather around him, soothed by his presence and his narrative. In the novel, this logic extends ominously to American television and also to Hitler, around whom Jack has built an academic department.

In an October 2004 Slate ­article about a Pentagon-endorsed NEA project (Operation Homecoming) designed to create an an­thology of war writing from U.S. veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom, novelist Aleksandar Hemon laments that Americans have lost a sense of common reality. Using post­modern in its old-fashioned epis­temological sense, Hemon writes that President Bush and members of his administration are “the rich people’s postmodernists: Reality is negotiable, except the ne­gotiations take place in the re­mote domain of the political and corporate elites; the truth of a statement is measured by its deniability; and the purpose of language is to deter indefinitely meaning and, therefore, understanding.” He­mon argues that Bush has turned Wit­tgenstein’s philosophy (“The world is facts in logical space”) into a perverse and fundamentalist philosophy (“The world is claims in faith-based space”). He suggests that to the extent that American fiction writers relinquish the world of facts they in effect do the work of the Bush administration, or at least they are powerless to oppose, object, respond.

Four days after Hemon’s article was posted on Slate, Ron Suskind’s New York Times Magazine article “Without a Doubt” introduced the Bush administration’s derision of what it calls the “reality-based community”—those reporters who, according to a senior adviser to Bush, “believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality.” As the adviser explains to Suskind:

That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an em­pire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that ­reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

The Bush regime has discarded the feedback loop, the scientific method, the dialectic between in­terpretation and evidence. Policy has become its own faith-based, self-justifying system, and reality has lost its power to correct and direct. Suskind’s article lends strong support to Hemon’s diagnosis.

Hemon concludes his brief article with a fervent call to literary arms, a guide to a new kind of American novel. Given that Bush’s ideology makes our lives “more unreal and fictitious by the day,” literary fiction “is going to have to do some work.” He writes:

Contemporary fiction has to de­velop new models to access, dismantle, and reassemble the ­fictional world of the Bushed Am­erica and thus reinsert facts back into our logical space. It has to excavate true human experience from under the debris of Operations Enduring Freedom and American Victimhood. It needs to restore the belief in the power of nonnegotiable human truth and so create home-in-language for those who are dead or lost in lies. A different Operation Homecoming is ahead of us. American fiction is going to have to reclaim American reality.

The Hemon Hypothesis is compelling. The subsequent Hemon Manifesto, however, is not likely to stir up the converts. This new American fiction—which seems so similar in spirit to the old American fiction of Sinclair, Dreiser, Norris, Steinbeck, et al—may remain the Theoretical Novel, hypothetically pos­sible but unwritten. Telling a nov­elist what to do is like telling a cat what to do. As DeLillo once wrote in a letter—to Jonathan Franzen, not to me—“the novel is whatever novelists are doing at a given time.” Franzen, who felt the obligation but not the conviction to write a social novel and was consequently in “despair about the possibility of connecting the personal and the social,” had written DeLillo for advice. To which DeLillo replied, “The writer leads, he doesn’t follow,” a proposition that is powerfully epigrammatic as well as entirely untrue (unless he means “The novelist ought to lead and not follow” or “The great novelist leads, does not follow”). Undeniably, most of us follow—we follow entrenched, culture- and era-de­pendent notions of what a novel is, what it does, the limits of its jurisdiction. We follow intellectual trends concerning the relationship between narrative and reality, language and truth. We follow, too, received wisdom concerning what counts as artful and beautiful—i.e., ambiguity, mystery, sub­­jectivity, psychological complexity. The Am­erican novelist wants to say something large and true—the novel, after all, is the perfect technology for excavation, exploration, serious fieldwork—and yet finds that large­ness and truth are in­tellect­ually obsolete. The epistemologically ambitious American novel that Hemon calls for risks ­vulgarity, didacticism, moralism, ugliness. It risks not being considered a novel at all.

Novelists follow and, in following, they come upon the Mimetic Crisis: Can our stories—historical, scientific, artistic—accurately correspond to something beyond them­selves? If truth and reality are deemed inaccessible—if all we have is narrative—then is the novel vital or is it worthless?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. It’s open, anguished.

Sweeping description makes me nearly as queasy as He­mon-esque prescription, but it does seem that the attentive novelist arrives, almost inevitably, at confusion and paralyzing ambivalence, because the novel today feels both crucial and useless; because representing the world accurately feels both impossible and imperative; because certainly the novelist both leads and follows; because the six powerful novels discussed above seem simultaneously ambitious and limited; and because Francis Bacon—“The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery”—seems unassailably correct, but by God so does Kurt Vonnegut: “When a society is in great danger, [writers are] likely to sound the alarms.” (See the Obligation Paradox, also, vulgarly, the Bacon-Vonnegut Clusterfuck.)

It’s important that we don’t ro­manticize muddled or irrational thought, celebrate it as depth or wisdom. And yet these contradictions won’t be readily resolved. Like the narrators discussed above, you can accept the conditions or you can anguish over them, but you can’t very easily reconcile them. The contemporary writer’s ambivalence and bewilderment are not the result of sloppy, careless thinking. It presumably took a brilliant writer like E. L. Doctorow many years and much careful thought to arrive at his contradictions.

This is what we know about Doctorow’s Brain: It’s synecdoche, microcosm. It’s us, now.

1. By Barthelme’s postulate, the make-it-new modernists and the most radically experimental postmodern writers could be regarded as thoroughgoing realists who just see the world in vastly different ways than those writers traditionally called realists. Formal and linguistic innovation, ambiguity and difficulty—these might be seen as mimetic, as attempts to represent the chaotic, centerless world. Consequently, the modernists, typically said to be reacting against realism and naturalism, may be regarded as objecting to realism on its own grounds (i.e., because the world suggested by realist conventions was not accurate or true). You can’t not try to represent reality. Just try. Saunders’s main point is that realism is a set of conventions—“distortion, exaggeration, and compression”—that fool readers into thinking that fiction resembles real life. In one sense this position is indisputable. However, it is difficult to deny that some premises and modes of representation are more realistic or lifelike than others. The middle area might be gray, but at the extremes there is art that recognizably corresponds to our world and art that doesn’t. Nonrealist writing almost certainly refers to our world (this is Barthelme’s point), but it might not resemble it. The imaginary world of a novel, for instance, might ignore or alter very real physical laws of our world. (Saunders’s work is a fine example of writing that refers to our American reality and our physical universe without trying to represent it transparently.) So realist technique seems to be a plausible category, though it is made even more complicated by the Third Law of Mimesis: Innovative realist technique does not remain viable as realist technique. A specific technique can change, over time, from realist to nonrealist. The transparent window be­comes opaque. Today’s bold mimetic strategies become tomorrow’s allusive, intertextual gambits. That is, Virginia Woolf may have used stream of consciousness to hold a mirror up to the conscious mind, but a twenty-first-century novelist would use stream of consciousness to hold a mirror up to a Virginia Woolf novel.
2. This is not a case of Early Doctorow vs. Late Doctorow. The comments of Novelists A and B do not represent a shift in thinking over a career. Some of A’s and B’s responses are from the same interview.
3. The Ragtime Corollary: Consider Ragtime (1975), a historical novel whose characters include Freud, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, and Houdini. On one hand, Doctorow seeks to tell an alternative version of twentieth-century America—presumably more true or accurate than official versions—emphasizing a historical process whereby the radicalism of one generation is the orthodoxy of the next. The engine of history, Doctorow suggests in the novel, is not the will of great men, but chance, accident, contingency, and agitation. Fictional characters and historical figures coexist and occasionally meet—coincidentally (a key word in the book)—as in the memorable scene when the character Younger Brother masturbates while watching Emma Goldman give Evelyn Nesbit a massage (the ejaculate compared to ticker tape!). “It is true,” Doctorow A once said, “that I reject information on the basis of my own judgment and have invented some things that have no historical verification. Nevertheless, I deal in truth.” The truth here being, one presumes, the spirit and motion of the twentieth century in America. On the other hand, however, Doctorow’s novel clearly suggests that all history is invention and myth, that facts are illusions, that historical reality is ultimately unknowable—composed, not recorded. “If you ask me whether some things in Ragtime really happened,” Doctorow B once said, “I can only say, They have now.” Ragtime, then, is an invented history that emerges simultaneously from two mutually exclusive historiographies, based on mutually exclusive theories of knowledge, that of Novelist A and that of B.
4. Occasionally it also means self-referentiality, intertextuality, and genre play. So the film Adaptation, a movie about a guy trying to write it, is postmodern. As is Coetzee’s novel Foe, a retelling of Robinson Crusoe. As is Night Train, Martin Amis’s literary foray into the hard-boiled police procedural.
5. This is the kind of claim that can make a rhetorician bristle. I’m not suggesting that rhetorical choices are merely ornamental flourishes, the adornment of thought. Formal and rhetorical elements certainly have philosophical implications, and it is impossible to distinguish where, say, form or style leave off and meaning begins. A novel’s radical fragmentation can suggest a character’s consciousness or the chaotic barrage of twenty-first-century information culture. A novel’s shifting points of view can communicate the elusiveness of the true or the real, the manner in which we are all trapped within our perspectives. Yes, in good writing form is meaning. Often the formal and philosophical elements correspond—postmodern technique can evince a postmodern worldview, and perhaps was invented to do just that—but they are not inextricably linked. That is, meaning is not reducible to form (and a particular formal device can be used for different effect in different ­novels). Plenty of other elements of fiction contribute to meaning, like setting, action, and dialogue. The point is just that postmodern techniques do not automatically imbue a text with a postmodern theme or worldview.
7. The novel’s premise is pushing the boundaries of realism, but doesn’t quite fall over into absurdity or surrealism. Five sisters who commit suicide together is outlandish, but not quite inconceivable. Compare to Donald Antrim’s novel The Hundred Brothers, in which the narrator and his ninety-nine brothers convene in the family home to dispense of the old man’s ashes. Eugenides clearly wanted to stay in the realm of the just-barely-believable.
8 It’s worth noting that O’Brien’s narrator often uses would in these “Hypothesis” sections not to indicate habit or repeated action in the past (as Upton Sinclair does in The Jungle), but to communicate a sense of uncertainty or speculation. That is, according to this particular hypothesis, Kathy Wade would have left the cabin during the night, would have walked down to the dock, would have started the boat, etc. At the end of the novel, the narrator concedes: “Even this is conjecture, but what else is there?” Sinclair’s solid would—the would of routine and repetition, as in “There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it”—has here become the flimsy would of guesswork.
10. Most of these novels’ first-person accounts are closed, self-referential systems. We can judge the narrative’s internal logic and consistency, but not its truth value, its reliability or verisimilitude. We have no way of triangulating, of determining the story’s accuracy, its correspondence to the world outside of it. Readers, like the narrator, are trapped inside a subjective account of a tragic event, a truth imagined rather than reported. This point can be clarified through comparison. Consider Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, which is, like most of the novels discussed here, a domestic/suburban tragedy, but unlike those novels is narrated reliably and unambiguously in third-person. Revolutionary Road is about the tragic demise of Frank and April Wheeler, an ambitious but fearful couple trapped in the spiritual graveyard of the American suburbs. At the end of the novel, after April has died and Frank has turned into a meek, passionless zombie who works in a PR firm—a “walking, talking, smiling, lifeless man”—the Wheelers’ former neighbor and friend Milly Campbell tells their story to the aptly named Braces, who have moved into the Wheelers’ old house (and who presumably will prop up the neighborhood after its unfortunate events). According to Milly, whose voice in the repetition of the story “had taken on a little too much of a voluptuous narrative pleasure,” things turned out as well as could be expected for Frank Wheeler. (Nancy Brace, listening with her husband, a management consultant, “liked her stories neat, with points.”) Milly tells a radically condensed and sanitized version of the action of the novel, concluding that Frank has picked himself up and is carrying on courageously. But readers know from the preceding narration that Milly has got it all wrong. She has created a comforting story—she has tamed a tragedy and found a way to make desperation and chaos as orderly as the suburban lawns—but she’s lying and we know it, as does her husband, Shep, who leaves the room and thinks, “Why did she have to make such a God damn soap opera out of it? If she couldn’t tell it the way it really was, to people who really wanted to listen, why the hell tell it at all?” Yates suggests that there may be multiple valid interpretations of every event, but there is not an endless number of valid interpretations. A storyteller can misreport or misinterpret the world—willingly or unwillingly. That’s what is at stake here—the very possibility of a lie or an error. If the narrator of That Night were lying about remembered events, we’d never know it; there are no checks and balances built into the novel. The narrator is free to create truth and meaning any way she sees fit, and she doesn’t have to answer to reality. The implication of Yates’s conclusion in Revolutionary Road is that not all interpretations are created equal. Some stories are better—that is, more accurate, more responsive and beholden to the real—than others. And some are just plain wrong. (See the Campbell Verifiability Scenario.)
More Reads

Like Dylan in the Movies

Andrew Lewis Conn

On Duty

John Glassie

The Long Good-Bye Man

Porter Fox