Sunday, March 12, 2006

Finite subjective reality

So I really liked Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon, which I am interested to see was published by Tor Books in paperback in 1996, the 1995 edition I have from the library is published by Harcourt Brace (and here's the link for the recent reprint edition).

I am moderately ignorant about publishing things but I guess this means that science-fiction Tor bought the paperback rights from respectable/prestigious literary publisher Harcourt (sorry, those adjectives are oversimplifying, but you get the point). The reason I find this interesting (and one reason I find Lethem so compelling) is that I am completely torn between the two kinds of thing in the same way; for my first novel, the excellent independent press Soft Skull ended up really perfectly suiting me, they're great, but I have been thinking a lot recently (no, I don’t have any news yet about the fate of my new novel, but we’re making definite progress and I’ve got the agent thing sorted out finally) about the appeal of great-quality mass-market fiction versus the more mandarin and yet also often more boundary-pushing appeal of the literary-end stuff. I don’t know, no definite opinions on this or what will best suit me in the end, but Lethem has done a very good job straddling those worlds.

This novel reminded me of a number of others I have liked, Diana Wynne Jones’s Hexwood and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and also the wonderful (highly recommended by me, there is good reason this guy has a cult following) Set This House In Order: A Romance of Souls by Matt Ruff, a road novel about bodies and identities that has a certain amount in common with this one.

But the main thing I was thinking is that I would never in a million years have guessed if I were reading this when it came out in the mid-nineties that its author would go on to produce Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. Quite amazing.

There are occasional sequences of sentences here in which you get a sudden flash of Lethem-to-come:

Eyes too close together, forehead too narrow, smile all gum. You would have to have reasons for being friends with a face like that; the face itself didn't supply any. Chaos suspected he'd had reasons sometime in the past. Seeing the face again was like finding the same odd-looking rock on a beach twice.

Or a character speaking about the aliens-in-form-of-hive-intelligence that may or may not have taken over this world and telling the protagonist to "Think of it as a cancer":

Tumors, earth-tumors growing inside the houses, breaking through the basement floors, teeming with this unnatural alien life that can get inside your head, brainwash you, make you care about keeping them comfortable. Like being the butler of a tumor.

That’s a great line, isn’t it? I like the use of italics: "Like being the butler of a tumor."

But while I like the general vibe, the language isn’t extraordinary as in those later ones: in particular, the here-and-there wordplay struck me as clever rather than really imaginative (this post-apocalyptic San Francisco's neighborhoods, for instance, include the Submission and Ate Hashberry--too cute...).

There’s no doubt in my mind now that Lethem’s a fox rather than a hedgehog. That’s what I thought originally, but it’s useful to see it borne out. Of course although I would be the first to admit that some of the very, very best (maybe a higher proportion of the really great) novelists are hedgehogs (Kazuo Ishiguro is a hedgehog, even though his artistic program only comes clear around the publication of The Unconsoled, I was just ranting about this the other day to a former student of mine), all of my temperamental affinities are with the foxes. (NB Anthony Burgess.)

Here’s the relevant quotation, if you don’t know it, from Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox (and here's an anthology of Berlin’s writings that includes the full essay, if you're interested, as well as much other stuff worth reading):

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel--a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance--and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.

Jonathan Lethem is a fox who (oh god, this is awfully whimsical, it's the late-night-blogging effect I'm afraid) who in his youth loved hedgehogdom of a particularly powerful and cerebral kind but came to realize that it wasn’t going to suit him. This I have gathered from his collection of essays The Disappointment Artist; here was my post on first reading it, but I will quote the relevant passage again here. In the essay titled "The Beards" Lethem describes himself asking works of art "to be both safer than life and fuller, a better family," then plumbing them so deep that "many perfectly sufficient works of art would become thin, anemic":

This was especially true of anything that assumed a posture of minimalism or perfectionism, or of chilly, intellectual grandeur. Hence my rage at Stanley Kubrick, Don DeLillo, Jean-Luc Godard, and Talking Heads. The artists who'd seemed to promise the most were the ones who'd created art that stirred me while seeming to absent themselves from emotional risk--so these were the ones capable of failing my needs most violently. When I discovered their imperfections, my own hope of absenting myself from emotional risk seemed imperiled. It was as though in their coolness these artists had sensed my oversized needs and turned away, flinched from what I'd asked them to feel on my behalf.

Bonus discovery: the Lethem-edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia looks like something I certainly must get and read.

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