Monday, March 20, 2006

Joyce Carol Oates on Jay McInerney

in the New York Review of Books (no subscription required):

Though a glut of material has appeared on the subject of September 11, much of it the recorded testimony of survivors and eyewitnesses, very few writers of fiction have taken up the challenge and still fewer have dared to venture close to the actual event; September 11 has become a kind of Holocaust subject, hallowed ground to be approached with awe, trepidation, and utmost caution. The reader's natural instinct is to recoil from a purely fictitious treatment of so profound and communal a subject, for the task of fiction is to create a self-defined, self-absorbed, and highly charged text out of language, and the appropriation of a communal trauma for such purposes would seem to be exploitative. (The popular bias for memoir in our time, even fictionalized memoir, is this wish for 'authenticity' on the part of the author who has also been a participant in his story.)

More crucially, fiction must focus upon invented people whose personal lives take precedence over the collective, and readers might well resent the intrusion of invented people in a foreground that blocks our view of the far more significant background. The self-absorbed characters of The Good Life come to seem like antic figures on a movie screen that evaporate when exposed to daylight, all the more annoying in that their interwoven stories are so familiar.

I've got more to say about JCO, but am saving it for an upcoming review; meanwhile you can also read Stephen Greenblatt on two new books about Christopher Marlowe online at the NYRB. The print issue includes John Lanchester on Julian Barnes, Garry Wills on Taylor Branch's latest volume on MLK, Anita Desai on Vikram Seth and an exchange on Proust that features Andre Aciman and Lydia Davis among others; I must not let this one sit and accumulate dust unread....


  1. Very interesting that JCO failed to mention her protege JSF's 9/11 novel in light of this discussion... What did you make of that omission?

  2. I'm not sure--it might be a question of propriety, not praising for instance one's own student's work while criticizing someone else's; but actually in the context of the piece, it makes sense that she doesn't mention specific novels, the point is a fairly broad one about fiction and tragedy.

  3. I read this blog occasionally and I am suddenly struck by the absence of any discussion of Brett Easton Ellis. Have I missed it somehow?

  4. No, it's true, I don't seem to have talked about him in the lifetime of this blog. Perhaps one to put on the summer reading list is Lunar Park; there is definitely something PictureofDorianGreylike about the strange pairing in my mind & the collective consciousness of America between BEE and JMcI.