But set aside the Socratics: do we need more laziness today? A blurb from the editor of The Idler (a “magazine and school dedicated to fun, freedom and fulfilment”) claims that “Lafargue’s ideas are even more relevant to today’s enslaved societies than when they were first written.” But is that true? Only two sets of people today work anything like the 17-hour days that, in Lafargue’s statistics, were par for the course in the Third Republic: in the First World, highly compensated urban professionals (suicidal Goldman Sachs analysts, etc.), and far more numerously, agricultural and industrial workers safely hidden away in the developing world. This comment is, perhaps, symptomatic of a certain bien-pensant LARP at the socialist past (along with grad student unions, more dedicated to “mental health access” than to anything resembling the concerns of industrial unions; or the urban literati, in chicly prewar apartments which, like their Eugene Debs hats, are paid for with trust fund disbursements).
In the self-serving afterword here – I’ll spare quotation from it – Boyne essentially repeats that he writes about Nazis so as to humanize them, “exploring emotional truths and authentic human experiences”. Setting aside his total inability to render human experience as anything other than a Hallmark card, he’s fundamentally wrong: the purpose of Holocaust education should not be to recognize the good in bad people, but to recognize the bad inside good people. We don’t need anyone to teach us how to recognize the barefaced devil; the danger is the insidious and gradual creep of violence into the civilized and everyday. This is what philosopher Theodor Adorno’s dictum – “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” – warned of: art unable to recognize the break the Holocaust represented with the past, afraid to apprehend the failure of the civilizing project. With this childish drivel in which the villains and victims come labeled and sorted, Boyne yet again seems immune to its lessons.
Yet those frenzied first months of MeToo coincided with the tail end of the personal essay era. Women writers were beginning to demur from divulging their darkest experiences for $150. The media machine was starving for content and needed a viral “piece” — something not-too-challenging, not-too-long, and above all, relatable. For “Cat Person” to sky-rocket beyond the fiction pages of the New Yorker into the clickbait realm of the “MeToo piece”, the protagonist needed to be bland enough for any reader to self-insert and realistic enough to believe. But what about that inconvenient cruelty of hers? What about her delight in Rob’s nervousness? What about her arousal, imagining her own inappropriate youth? By 2019, the New Yorker would be ready to touch those tensions, publishing Mary Gaitskill’s “This is Pleasure”, a provocative piece shifting between the perspectives of a MeToo’d editor and one of his “victims”. But in 2017, it was taboo to challenge the roles MeToo had firmly delineated. And editor, author, and reader were all ready to play along — even if, later, we came to confess the contradictions.
The problem, then, isn’t that Conroe’s parents were rich (which I have no cause to believe is the case), or that he didn’t, as Pink claims, “earn” his audience by publishing online before getting the big deal. The problem is that this book, like so many others in its milieu, values “authenticity” and “realness” over more venerable criteria of literary value (depth, characterisation, plot). Fuccboi does accurately represent the cretinous depravity of the Millennial generation, as well as the self-aggrandising cult of martyrdom — increasingly by self-diagnosed mental or physical illness — with which my generation shirks the responsibilities historically incumbent upon the civilised mind. But though Fuccboi is playful and lively, often funny and sometimes moving, and certainly of its time, it does not fully succeed as a work of art.
Didion was not beautiful, not sexy, but glamorous. That’s what she was: glamorous, with her Corvette Stingray and her icicle limbs and her cigarettes and leotards and mohair and bourbon and Dexedrine and despair. There was something transcendent about her, like she’d managed to forget she was a woman, even as she was fashionable and married and almost sociopathically attuned to the niceties of dress and decoration. There was sadness, there, too, like a bleeding vein across the page. But she was so hardened, so clear-eyed, that she didn’t feel like a “woman writer.” When Interview Magazine asked her, “Why can’t it just be magic all the time?”, she said, “What.” You couldn’t imagine seducing Joan Didion.
Balzac was a would-be lawyer, Flaubert was a would-be lawyer, every writer on the “recommended” table at my local bookstore is a graduate of one of 12 college prep schools. But Houellebecq was a computer programmer: a code monkey, a cubicle rat. And so when Extension du domaine de la lutte came out — a novel about a programmer so miserable he drives his hideous virgin colleague to suicide — it was a cri de coeur for an entire, degraded society. It was catharsis.
But do these characters have rich inner lives? Or do they just recite self-flagellating cliches about the dangers of climate change and the ethics of art in the era of political polarization? Breathy reviewers have praised supposedly novel observations such as, “So the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world — packing it tightly down underneath the glittering surface of the text.” But this critique of aestheticism was made in the late 19th century by the naturalists, repeated by decades of social realists on every continent, and made banal by Jean-Paul Sartre’s call for littérature engagée. It’s not that one must abandon the novel to write anything other than predictable romances — it’s that predictable romances are all Rooney seems capable of writing.
Too many of us, like the protagonist of Secretary, “yearn for contact in an autistic and ridiculous universe, and… wind up getting [our] butt spanked instead.” We know that sex won’t save us, that work won’t save us, we know that feminism won’t save us, and we don’t think the old rules will either.The last thing Gaitskill said to me, as I was leaving her home last week, was that she thought she’d have been a very different person if she hadn’t been raised in Michigan. Perhaps that’s the Midwesterner in her — a sense that the world where safety and comfort were a promise, where if you made the right choices the right things happened, has already ended.
Though Ferrante fans alike treat the Neapolitan novels as autobiography — as “real” and “brave” — it’s telling that In the Margins celebrates Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Ultimately, I suppose that’s what the Neapolitan novels are: the autobiography of an imagined person dignified in her aloofness, grand in her disappearance, and so absent that the books read as if discovered in the desert. It’s not that her unveiling was all that awful an act: it’s that her fans, with all the magic gone out of art and replaced with exercises in mutual suspicion and mediocrity, have decided, albeit with a slightly inconsistent political justification, to remain studiously unaware of the truth. And who’s to blame them? And who’s to blame her?
"Eventually I went back to sleep, and memory of the years we'd shared rolled through my mind, images evoked by nostalgia or spite," reflects Beto, the narrator and protagonist of David Trueba's 2015 novel Blitz, as he shares a Munich hotel room with the woman whose infidelity he has just discovered. Nostalgia or spite remain, generally, the underlying political message of this text, as some combination of these emotions leaves our narrator in a self-pitying quagmire. Explaining his decision to skip his flight back to Spain and stay in Germany after the landscape architecture conference that has brought them there, Beto tells us, "My inertia could be understood as petty revenge." Against his girlfriend, certainly. But, on a wider level, his inertia is a protest against the modern economy. The Eurozone crisis is the inevitable backdrop, the necessary explanation for this novel of crash, failure, and drift.