Thursday, June 23, 2011

Seeing the Blood Amid the Flowers

These tulips may or may not smell like teen spirit.
George Saunders discusses the "obligatory edgy," a quality he imputes to modern fiction but that applies more broadly (subscription required):
I first discovered the obligatory-edgy (and the happy effect it had on the energy of my prose) when my work was dying of complete boredom for want of it. So excising this thing (if it is, in fact, "a thing"), at least in theory, can feel like a step backward. Edginess can be a way of introducing energy and/or an appropriate overtone of skepticism, a way of enlarging the frame, of accounting for the complications of real life. Are there fields of beautiful tulips in the world, through which two well-matched lovers stroll? You bet. But is the world an endless sequence of such fields? Ha. So, to underscore this, maybe we have a crop duster fly over the tulip field, and the pilot is listening to "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Or we widen the zoom to reveal an Air Force warning sign just in time to witness a blast and mushroom cloud in the background; or we zoom in to reveal that each tulip is a sort of holding cell for one tiny person, a few of whom try to jump to the ground only to die or land broken among ravenous ants. Yawn.

This sort of ironic inversion that turns beauty to ugliness has been hackneyed at least since The Twilight Zone -- or, if you like, since Chaucer or Boccaccio or Sophocles -- but it retains all the potential for social criticism that Serling and these others tried for -- emphasis on potential and tried for, de-emphasis on these few illustrations. Saunders:
Sometimes when I read new fiction I feel that the writers of it, myself included, have a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with our own culture. I don't mean we disapprove of it. I mean we have absorbed so much habitual disapproval of it that we are no longer able to see it, and therefore are unable to disapprove of it properly. How can you disapprove (or approve) of something you no longer see? If your palette of possible modes of representation has been habitually narrowed and restricted (to the edgy, the snarky, the hip, etc.), if that palette has been shorn of, say, the spiritual, the ineffable, the earnest, the mysterious — of awe, wonder, humility, the truly unanswerable questions — then there isn't much hope of any real newness there. Are the very real pleasures of being an American in 2011 underrepresented in our fiction?
It may be that the malcontent disposition, the oppositional stance, the rarely-say-die spirit of antagonism embodied in the "obligatory-edgy" carries little potential for newness, but what good is newness? Besides which, has there ever been a confirmed instance of it?

And is there a serious argument to be made that contemporary popular culture is neglecting any pleasures? I suppose I have to admit the possibility even as I doubt it strongly. Perhaps this is just the obligatory edge in me speaking, or maybe the habitual blindness Saunders imputes to it, but when I see skin, flowers, sun, songbirds, or the like, the loudest voice tells me to look for the blood.

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