Part II: The New Genre of Plastic Realism in American Fiction

06/16/2015 06:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

Continued from Part I: Read It Here

Writers are only addressing each other, satisfying conglomerate publishing's desire to offer a hegemonic product that seamlessly fits into the wider political economy, rather than any actual audience. Because most literary writers no longer have to rely on the marketplace for economic survival--since they're ensconced in the academy--sales and readership are quite beside the point, or even to be shunned.

The multicultural tendency is another standby in plastic realism; whereas in the decades preceding the 2000s there might have been some expression of tensions between the ideal and the reality, the trend now is to offer an ecstatic version of multiculturalism (a trend Zadie Smith launched in Britain), an excitement that has nothing do with the reality of intolerance and xenophobia (along with official political correctness) that has taken hold in America and Europe since the turn of the century and seems destined to stay even past the duration of the economic slump.

The major new texts of the aforementioned authors easily demonstrate the severity of the shift. Realism, as the concept crystallized in the nineteenth century, stands for portrayal of the average or everyday condition, depicted in recognizable settings and geographies, generally couched in language that is workaday and subservient to the representation of reality rather than being the primary feature of concern. Realism, we might say, implies the writer shunning self-consciousness for the purpose of presenting the community to itself.

Ian Watt has famously ascribed the rise of classical realism to the rise of the bourgeoisie in the early eighteenth century; its foremost nineteenth-century masters were Balzac, Dickens, Flaubert, Stendhal, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. Particularly with regard to Dostoevsky, Mikhail Bakhtin has discussed the polyphonic (or multi-voiced) nature of realism, as it seeks to present the conflict between the classes without taking a privileged position one way or the other.

In every important respect, plastic realism consciously violates the premises of classical realism. It is not interested in presenting a panoply of social classes and conflicts, leaving it to the reader to mediate moral tensions according to his own inclinations (though this never worked to perfection in classical realism either). Instead, it offers a soothing surface transparency that coheres above all with the boundaries of existing literary discourse.

Examples from the leading proponents of American literary fiction in the 2000s amply demonstrate the uniqueness of plastic realism as a new form of writing, as it empties previous novelistic forms of philosophical content and offers false therapeutic panaceas.

Innovation in such conditions is by definition impossible, and institutional mechanisms exist to make it doubly so. For Walter Berglund in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, for Scotty and Sasha in Jennifer Egan's A Visit to the Goon Squad, and for Gogol in Jhumpa Lahiri's Namesake, the protagonists' struggles result in a wholeness at the end that justifies social obstacles along the way as necessary, even welcome; in this view, all problems originate internally, and the characters' task is to uncover their own unique predestined harmony--which they do, in all these cases.

A forerunner for this quiescent pattern was Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones earlier in the decade, which turned the rape and murder of a young girl into a prelude to a heaven of pure wish fulfillment.

This form of writing is essentially a humorless literary interpretation of neoliberalism, not the substance of existential tragedy (based in turn on humor) that characterizes the classical realist novel of Balzac, Dickens, or Dostoevsky.

The institutional protocols are hidebound and becoming more so. The state of hegemony in the conditions of writing and publishing is unprecedented because there used to be multiple networks or nodes of circulation and prestige whereby dissent and resistance could be expressed, but now there is a singular national network which rigorously excludes literary writing that doesn't fit the program.

This is not mere nostalgia, but can be empirically demonstrated. The training of writers is obviously a big part of the hegemonic process, and this has been carried forward to unparalleled degree, with the proliferation of more than 350 creative writing programs and a formalized credentialing process that tends to track very closely with later literary success.

Today it is almost inconceivable that a writer with serious literary aspirations in America should think of working outside this national network; he or she will join it and give in to its aesthetic compulsions at some point or else forever remain an outsider. Nearly all the known literary stars come from this national network of formalized writing and publication, and all the major awards and national prestige accrue exclusively to those who have excelled within its boundaries.

Such a fine institutional apparatus didn't come into being for no reason. In fact, it is a gathering inward of all the creative forces in society so that those who remain outside it are delegitimized. The culmination of writing as an academic profession has gone hand in hand with changes in the publishing industry which has become a totally corporatized venture (although the process had started several decades ago, it has assumed much greater completion recently).

Both these tendencies push literary writing toward forms of abstraction (since the audience is cut out of the equation), as plastic realism, for many reasons, fills the breach. Plastic realism creates the illusion that literature is still being produced, when in fact only a fictional veneer for ideology is being manufactured, thus leaving both producers and consumers (patrons) happy.

In these conditions of institutional formalization, it is difficult to imagine that so-called independent presses can either sustain writing seriously at odds with the reigning aesthetic or make it relevant in some way to the broader culture of reading. So-called innovative writing is produced almost entirely within the existing institutional boundaries--i.e., after training by the same MFA leaders who subscribe to the current political economy of publication--and is put out on small presses whose aspirations are not to radically challenge bourgeois/neoliberal/capitalist culture but to offer consumers (typically other MFA students) some comfort food, a bit of a vain distraction from normal preoccupations.

The conventions of plastic realism come into sharp focus when we explore the defining texts of the 2000s. Analysis of plot, character development, linguistic style, and narrative structure in Franzen, Egan, Lahiri, Jeffrey Eugenides, Gary Shteyngart, Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, Richard Ford et al. demonstrates remarkable similarities across the board.

In novel after novel of multiculturalism, neoliberalism's narrow interpretation (replacement of identity for economic rights) is never skeptically questioned, but is taken as sacred dogma.

Along with this quiescence toward economic maldistribution comes a markedly languid prose style (couched in the stately rhythms of Henry James, the paragon par excellence of plastic realism, along with two other nineteenth-century models, Flaubert and George Eliot). We see this in Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, as much as in Franzen's Freedom.Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding takes the form to extreme leisurely rhythms, as though there were all the time in the world to remake one's identity in the vacuum of ivory tower solipsism.

There is a clear relationship between this unhurried prose style, reveling in endless qualification and hesitation, and the current model of political economy which rests on the illusion of unlimited individual freedom (within established corporate/consumerist parameters of course).

Plots typically hinge on personal redemption, which is always to be had in the end, precluding the tragedy of destruction of character, just as neoliberalism rules out destruction of public morality by definition, because market practices are always sound, tautologically so. There is not a single instance of political rebellion in any of these texts, which seems astonishing considering the dramatic shift toward unfreedom (both political and economic) that has recently taken place.

So plastic realism's plots are hyper-literary in the sense that there is a disconnect between the actual social conditions of the past decade and the kinds of situations being represented.

While immigrants in the real world are being hauled up and deported in historically unprecedented numbers, Lahiri's concern is exclusively with highly educated Bengali immigrants whose dilemmas revolve around identity, freed as they are of economic pressures.

Often there is temporal displacement to the decades preceding the hyper-militarist phase of neoliberalism in the last decade, or spatial displacement to the developing world which serves as playscape for the Western protagonist to resolve personal difficulties; the emotional terrain being mined is nostalgia rather than reality.

Dave Eggers, for example, in A Hologram for the King, offers the fable of a white middle-class American male made redundant by the new economy and struggling to find a foothold in Saudi Arabia, but we can't help but feel that it's the protagonist's own unhip cluelessness that is ultimately responsible for his economic fate, not any structural economic reasons implicating America and its client states (like Saudi Arabia) in a downward moral spiral.

Whenever content is vacated in any art form, nostalgia (or sentimentalism) in some form seems to take over. When current developments in politics and economics do penetrate the fiction, plastic realism seeks to moderate the effects on individual development--character, in other words, emerges unscathed. At the end of Freedom, is Walter Berglund--after a quixotic scheme for environmental progress--any less of a person? The music industry may well be suffering from the ravages of the new economy, but the only sense we get in A Visit to the Goon Squad is that individual character can transcend the turmoil in any vocation, so that in New York circa 2020 it is possible to imagine music indeed bringing all people together.

It is a gross pretense to believe that the nineteenth-century liberal subject can operate under (regulated or laissez-faire) neoliberalism, but this is precisely the default position plastic realism propounds. Lahiri's Bengali-Americans are blessed meritocrats of a type that the East Coast elites long ago stopped believing in, as their own abundant memoirs of dysfunction testify. Neither modernism nor postmodernism's uncertainties will do.

Plastic realism seeks to construct a stable, comforting, becalmed world where the ordinary is generally charged with extraordinary (not humiliating) meaning--hence the frequency of the epiphany, or even unearned grace.

This theme of grace--merited by belief in the American dream (or its neoliberal version of individual effort)--is a persistent one in all the major texts of the last decade. Gifted shortstop Henry Skrimshander, in The Art of Fielding, is a culminating example, as everything he does and says is motivated not by base emotions but is a reflection of the ideal American citizen, virtuous and quiet, able to find perfect contentment in a total ideological vacuum.

Since plastic realism comes belatedly after postmodern fiction's heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, it cannot avoid confronting some of that tradition's popular legacies; it borrows quite a bit, and willy-nilly, from metafiction's narrative and linguistic strategies, but the aim is to domesticate/moderate/deradicalize these techniques and put them in the service of faux Victorian representation.

A Visit to the Goon Squad consists of thirteen interrelated stories, and deploys PowerPoint toward the end, but the overall tone is not postmodern but naively realistic, resolving every loose end and fixing every character's fate. The PowerPoint presentation, in fact, bears a remarkable similarity to Sebold's hypnotically pacified tone in The Lovely Bones. Any number of examples from the major texts of the 2000s attest to this quietist tendency.

The constructs of magical realism have also recently been utilized in a particularly domesticated way, abstracted from historical context, and this is becoming very popular among younger writers. Metafictional technique, magical realism, irony and self-consciousness, all melt into the "commonsensical" bourgeois conviction of empirical transparency, very much as neoliberalism would have it.

The subject that emerges from these texts is not alienated, as in the black humor novels of the 1960s, nor is he or she uncertain about existential status, but is someone firmly fixed in the political economy of the moment, the presumptions of which cannot be challenged. This tendency closely matches the outlook of the so-called antiheroes of major television series of the 2000s such as Breaking Bad, and it is how we can understand apparently discordant (and prolific) novelists like T. C. Boyle, Richard Russo, or Dave Eggers as falling under the hegemony of plastic realism.

The dominant attitude is resignation, acceptance, even fatalism, rescued only by the periodic epiphany that there can be moments of individual upliftment in an otherwise consumption-saturated media landscape, as Franzen, Egan, Shteyngart, Michael Chabon, and others demonstrate again and again.

Geographies in plastic realism are not typically mediated by ironic self-consciousness, as was true of the postmodern fiction of the preceding decades, but emerge as embodiments of diffuse power, against which the individual has little hope of making his or her presence felt.

If neoliberal globalization is actually about deterritorialization (of products and services, of the subject who used to be rooted to a single place), then plastic realism offers sacred reassurance that the world is not actually threatening or hostile (despite disconcerting events like 9/11 or the Iraq war or the economic collapse), that suffering and loss (and even death) have an ultimate meaning that can be transparently psychologized and understood.

The pervasive memoir of grief--as in the hands of Meghan O'Rourke--has much in common with the new fiction writers relentlessly emptying death itself of transcendent meaning and reducing it to an individualized transaction between aspects of one's own transparent demons.

The death of college president Guert Affenlight in The Art of Fielding serves as a helpful "life lesson" for the youthful survivors, as they are prompted toward ever higher ideals of (ivory tower) service; this greatest of all generations, the Millennial Generation, just goes on building private bubbles of contentment, having no time to worry about such things as debt burdens or lack of jobs. They--as long as they follow the rules of corporate team work--will be taken care of.

Continued in Part III...

Anis Shivani's recent books include Karachi Raj, The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, and Anatolia and Other Stories. Forthcoming books include Soraya: Sonnets, Literature in an Age of Globalization, and Plastic Realism: The New Style in American Fiction, based on the ideas set forth in this essay.

This Blogger's Books and Other Items from...