Money, American Fiction, Rainald Goetz

Recently noxrpm tweeted: “I will write the great (anti) American tax inversion novel.” This was said in jest, but it strikes me as an excellent idea. Money is the great lacuna in contemporary American fiction. A proper investigation of the theme would require enormous energy and the reading of vast quantities of a literature for which, I have to confess, I have very little sympathy, and my thoughts on the subject therefore cannot but be cursory in character. There are undoubtedly counterexamples of which I am ignorant; I am speaking impressionistically, but it can at least be affirmed that money and its allocation and their relationship to justice, while being vital aspects of present-day life, particularly for the billions of people shut out from the commercial rituals by which one achieves happiness or security, is far less present in the writing, not only of Americans, but in fact of the majority of the writers of today, at least in the languages I can read. Increasingly, money and freedom have become indistinguishable from one another: the poor are so often sent to prison for the failure to pay fines that the Economist, a far from radical publication, has come to speak of new debtors’ prisons; “intergenerational earnings elasticity” has been shown surprisingly static in many so-called democratic nations, and at the same time, wealth brings hitherto undreamt of pleasures and trifles as well as escape from virtually every convenience of modern life, from waiting in line at the airport to being stuck in traffic, at least in Mexico, where a system of private toll roads caters overwhelmingly to tourists and the country’s elite.

But we see almost none of this in Franzen, McCarthy, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, or, to look beyond America’s borders, in Knausgaard, Krasznahorkai, Peter Nadas, Bolaño. The list is nearly endless. Feints are occasionally made: the title of The Corrections derives from a market correction following the 2000 tech bubble, but the changes wrought by economic turmoil in that novel are largely esthetic, with merely adumbrated moral undertones the author never bothers to properly enumerate (this seems, incidentally, a hallmark of Franzen’s style); Tom Wolfe seems abstractly to comprehend that money might play an important role in others’ lives, but his amusement at his own talent for churning out one Dickensesque caricature after another eclipses the ethical imperative to actually inquire into the emotional and spiritual texture of the world he purports to depict. But in general, the two strains that seem to dominate contemporary fiction are a more or less supercilious, more or less walled-off philistinism that resorts to the literary novel for entertainment while vaguely intimating it might have some other abstract value, something to do with empathy and sensibility as a result of which it is alleged to transcend the merely popular; and then the nearly innumerable offshoots of literary modernism and postmodernism, the dominant tendencies of which are the ludic, in Oulipo-type conceits, and, increasingly, more or less maudlin solipsism.

In our conversation, noxrpm asked to what extent I thought workshop fiction had played a pernicious role in all this. Undoubtedly a great one. First because, if we may be honest, the ideology of workshop, with its anti-elitist, aw-shucksy maxims that remind one of nothing so much as the canned wisdom of AA sponsors who incidentally mentored a good number of their luminaries, nips in the bud those immodesties that with time flower into the singularity of style: can one imagine Thomas Bernhard making it through a workshop? Second because the workshop approach guarantees a certain pre-selection for economic class, which coincides to a great degree with ethnic background; third, because the enormous power of nepotism in the literary world has guaranteed a privileging of the workshop style in the journals and book publishers without the acceptance of which a literary career is impossible.

This may be pessimistic, but I doubt anyone who can read in other languages or who has some sense of what is happening elsewhere can fail to be dismayed by the tin-eared complacency, the effete self-absorption, the absolute refusal to delve deeper into the lives of others and the social and economic mechanisms that determine them, that characterize the contemporary American novel.

Some time back, when people were indulging their indignation about the 1% the way they are now indulging their indignation about Ferguson, Missouri, Teju Cole posted something on Twitter to the effect that, while it was worthwhile to cast a critical eye on the 1% and their offenses, we should not forget all the other things that the other 49% can do but choose not to. This is exactly right, and I have a feeling that the moral credit that would accrue to a widespread movement simply to be better, to be kinder, more generous, and more understanding, would have far more effect than any caviling about the responsibilities of a group of people whose manner of existence is basically predicated on the systematic negation of these responsibilities. The fact is, for all the umbrage one sees on social media, in the news, and so forth regarding gender injustice, racial injustice, economic disparities, and so on, successful American writers do not give a fuck; or perhaps the concept of giving a fuck needs to be redefined in an era when everyone at least believes himself informed and is endowed with a so-called voice to spread the word and online culture has allowed the translation of conscience and generosity to enter the realm of the merely symbolic, just as erotic urges have been channeled into online pornography and aggression into video games. Perhaps, just as Peter Singer, Devi Shetty, and others have tried to qualify how much a human life is worth in dollar terms in order to quantify conscience and give concrete meaning to ethical impulses, there should also be a price attached to the concept of giving a fuck.

Rainald Goetz

Rainald Goetz

In any case: after I had left off a moment this conversation with noxrpm, I suddenly recalled that I had forgotten to mention a person who for me is one of the major writers of our time, and the only person I am aware of who has grasped these matters head-on, with the lyrical force proper to an artist and the theoretical rigor the contemporary scene demands: the German novelist Rainald Goetz. A student of Luhmann, Weber, and Foucault, Goetz has turned his eye on a multitude of contemporary phenomena, from asylums to rave culture the art market to global capitalism, through the lens of system differentiation. To my knowledge, nothing of his work has been translated apart from one play into English and one novel into French, and a few incidental pieces. Goetz is on a short list of dream authors for me to translate, but I imagine he will be a difficult sell.

[Update: Fitzcarraldo editions will be publishing my translation of Irre in the Fall of 2017.]


Suhrkamp author page for Rainald Goetz (in German)

*with thanks to noxrpm for the conversation, Michael Wood, who maintains the English Google Site on Rainald Goetz, and Petra Hardt for introducing me to Goetz’s work.