I mentioned in an earlier post that during the summer I had read both The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman, and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Goldstein, and that I would have more to say about these. (I noticed I still haven’t given even capsule plot summaries of the kind I wrote, in my previous post, for the other books I mentioned. I’ll include these in a later post.)
In the same post, I noted that the novels that were by men, among those I’d read over the summer, pretty consistently were more narrowly focused than those by women. They concentrated on the personal journey of a single character, and paid little attention to social context, whether “social” is taken to mean the interactions within a group of people, or the operations of the larger society. Their plot was simple and straightforward, and minimal by comparison with the number of pages it took up. They seemed to find it difficult to pay close attention to a second character within the pages of the same novel, let alone more than two. But on the other hand, they did find room for ideas, sometimes in the form of allegory, but as often in the form of abstract discussion.
In part, this seemed to be because those novels happened to be genre novels, namely science fiction or fantasy, and thus to appeal to a specialized audience, who in many cases don’t read “mainstream” novels at all. Goodman’s and Goldstein’s books, though novels of ideas, were resolutely “mainstream,” and thus followed the patterns expected from most reasonably accomplished long fictions.
However, it’s not by any means the case that “mainstream” or “literary” novels have to be dialogue-heavy, plot-heavy “social” novels with lots of characters. In fact, most “literary” novels by men, especially (though also novels by women that are more “literary” and less intended for a general audience), are to some degree more similar to the genre or mainstream-genre hybrid novels I read over the summer: as narrowly focused as they are on a single character, with a relatively simple plot that tracks that one character’s education—maybe two, at an absolute maximum three. In fact, “women’s” or “social” novels, like The Cookbook Collector in particular, are considered not only old-fashioned, in literary circles, but outright unfashionable, associated with popular novels, more like The Help, and with the formally staid, a kind of novel that hasn’t advanced much in the past hundred and fifty years.
And it’s true that there are plenty of books that fit this description that are not very good, although they can be entertaining enough. What allows them to be published, and to sell, is the entertainment value they possess: value that derives from their being heavy on plot and on their failing to surprise most readers very much, either by what they include and what they say, or by how they are put together. They don’t need the qualities that make a different kind of novel “literary.” Yet coming back to “mainstream popular” novels after spending a lot of time reading more literary fiction, the novels that are merely entertaining can start to seem a little boring. It starts to feel as if they are all the same. They don’t seem interesting enough to read as slowly as I’ve become used to doing, I end up wanting to skim them.
On the other hand, however, it’s not at all fair to apply this description to The Cookbook Collector or to 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. I think Allegra Goodman, especially (who doesn't draw sophistication from explicit discussions of philosophy, as Goldstein does) is aiming at something that one might with reason describe as literary. She’s aiming at a kind of social novel that used to be considered—and arguably in some highly respected quarters still is considered, regardless of how old-fashioned it seems to others—the paradigm case of a novel. That this is her aim is demonstrated by the accomplished prose, the careful use of secondary characters and settings to indicate a theme, and the unobtrusive, natural-seeming way in which ideas and social questions are introduced into the narrative. And the themes themselves are quite similar to what, for example, Jonathan Franzen (in The Corrections) and Richard Powers (in Gain) have treated.
What is missing from Goldstein’s and Goodman’s novels is subjectivity: specifically, subjectivity in the language. The language in these books is flat. The treatment of ideas is superficial: not in the sense that the ideas are unsophisticated or that they’re treated in unsophisticated or uneducated ways, but, in the sense that there is no depth to them. Ideas are glanced at, disposed of in one sentence, and abandoned so that novelist and the reader can get on to the next thing. Nothing appears thought through. No striking thought makes its presence known behind the text; no striking thinking is laid out within the text itself. Moreover, the flat absence of anything that serves consistently to distinguish the language and thoughts of one character or narrative point of view from another (more in The Cookbook Collector than in 36 Arguments) overpowers the slight indications of subjectivity that might arise from implied differences in attitude or belief between them.
As it happens, the question of literariness has been raised before, with respect to The Cookbook Collector. A year and a half ago, at The Millions, an online books, arts, and culture site, Gabriel Brownstein asked why Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom “was sold as ‘The Great American Novel’ (that’s what Esquire called it), while The Cookbook Collector was (I guess) just another good book by Allegra Goodman.” In part, the answer seems obvious. Franzen’s writing is “literary”—in the ways outlined above—in a way Goodman’s isn’t. Literariness is Franzen’s goal, and because The Cookbook Collector lacks some of the obvious markers of most high-literary novels, it doesn’t seem as obviously to be Goodman’s goal. Brownstein relates this to “difficulty,” which Franzen has said a lot about, and to “his attempt to wed whacked-out and dark postmodern irony to sympathetic humanist realism.” And though this is part of it, I don’t see that either of these is really at the root of the difference. Brownstein also mentions the controversy over why “women’s novels,” supposedly, aren’t taken as seriously, considered for awards as often, and publicized as widely, as are men’s. I’d suggest that it is, in part, because what they lack, by comparison with novels like Franzen’s, has come to be considered more important than what more typically men’s literary novels (The Corrections and Freedom aren’t actually entirely typical, I think) lack by comparison with the women’s or old-fashioned social novel.
In his essay at The Millions, Brownstein quotes a passage from Freedom to illustrate the difference. I haven’t read Freedom yet, however, and I’ll quote one from Franzen’s previous novel, The Corrections, which he could as easily have used instead:
“Six days a week several pounds of mail came through the slot in the front door, and since nothing incidental was allowed to pile up downstairs—since the fiction of living in this house was that no one lived here—Enid faced a substantial tactical challenge. She didn't think of herself as a guerrilla, but a guerrilla was what she was. By day she ferried matériel from depot to depot, often just a step ahead of the governing force. By night, beneath a charming but too-dim sconce at a too-small table in the breakfast nook, she staged various actions: paid bills, balanced checkbooks, attempted to decipher Medicare copayment records and make sense of a threatening Third Notice from a medical lab that demanded immediate payment of $0.22 while simultaneously showing an account balance of $0.00 carried forward and thus indicating that she owed nothing and in any case offering no address to which remittance might be made. It would happen that the First and Second Notices were underground somewhere, and because of the constraints under which Enid waged her campaign she had only the dimmest sense of where those other Notices might be on any given evening. She might suspect, perhaps, the family-room closet, but the governing force, in the person of Alfred, would be watching a network newsmagazine at a volume thunderous enough to keep him awake, and he had every light in the family room burning, and there was a non-negligible possibility that if she opened the closet door a cascade of catalogues and House Beautifuls and miscellaneous Merrill Lynch statements would come toppling and sliding out, incurring Alfred's wrath. There was also the possibility that the Notices would not be there, since the governing force staged random raids on her depots, threatening to "pitch" the whole lot of it if she didn't take care of it, but she was too busy dodging these raids to ever quite take care of it, and in the succession of forced migrations and deportations any lingering semblance of order was lost, . . .”
or from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot:
“Jet lag added to his slight delirium. It was morning by the clock but deepest nighttime in his body. The rising sun forced him to squint. It seemed unkind somehow. And yet, at street level, everything had been arranged to please the eye. The trees were thick with late-summer leaves. They wore iron grilles around their trunks, like aprons. The broadness of the sidewalk accommodated newspaper kiosks, dog walkers, chic ten-year-old girls on their way to the park. A sharp scent of tobacco arose from the curbside, which was the way Mitchell had thought Europe would smell, earthy, sophisticated, and unhealthy, all at once.”
or this, from the same novel:
“The shelves near the fireplace held Alton’s favorites, biographies of American presidents and British prime ministers, memoirs by warmongering secretaries of state, novels about sailing or espionage by William F. Buckley, Jr. Phyllida’s books filled the left side of the bookcases leading up to the parlor, NYRB-reviewed novels and essay collections, as well as coffee-table volumes about English gardens or chinoiserie. Even now, at bed-and-breakfasts or seaside hotels, a shelf full of forlorn books always cried out to Madeleine. She ran her fingers over their salt-spotted covers. She peeled apart pages made tacky by ocean air. She had no sympathy for paperback thrillers and detective stories. It was the abandoned hardback, the jacketless 1931 Dial Press edition ringed with many a coffee cup, that pierced Madeleine’s heart. Her friends might be calling her name on the beach, the clambake already under way, but Madeleine would sit down on the bed and read for a little while to make the sad old book feel better.”
or from Philip Roth’s most recent novel, Nemesis:
“And then he hurled the javelin. You could see each of his muscles bulging when he released it into the air. He let out a strangulated yowl of effort (one we all went around imitating for days afterward), a noise expressing the essence of him—the naked battle cry of striving excellence. The instant the javelin took flight from his hand, he began dancing about to recover his balance and not fall across the foul line he’d etched in the dirt with his cleats. And all the while he watched the javelin as it made its trajectory in a high, sweeping arc over the field. None of us had ever before seen an athletic act so beautifully executed right in front of our eyes. The javelin carried, carried way beyond the fifty-yard line, down to the far side of the opponent’s thirty, and when it descended and landed, the shaft quivered and its pointed metal tip angled sharply into the ground from the sailing force of the flight.”
And here’s a passage from The Cookbook Collector:
“Working at the store, she had become a connoisseur of sorts, someone who knew the difference between a first printing and a latter-day edition. She had come to appreciate white rag paper and color plates with tissue over them and marbled endpapers and gilt titles. Once, she had insisted that content was all that mattered. Now form began to matter too, and her eye delighted in elegant type, and her hand loved thick creamy pages. She treasured what was old and handmade, and began to enjoy early editions more than new. George had influenced her this way, not so much by what he said, but by example. His passion and his knowledge inspired her. When he acquired a new book, he called her over. ‘Jess, come quick!’ Sensing her interest, he explained what made the volume scarce and fine. At those moments, she wished she could work longer hours at Yorick’s. The trouble was that she had so little time.”
There is nothing in The Cookbook Collector that is like Enid’s emotionally tinged sense that her inability to keep on top of the bills and the less essential mail is the equivalent of waging a war, and that her conflict with her husband over the mess puts her in the position of a guerilla fighter vis-à-vis his Governmental Force; or Madeleine’s irrational feeling that books need her to rescue them; or Mitchell’s experience of Paris as a physical environment that somehow makes him think about how he’s been approaching his life in the wrong way; or Arnold Mesnikoff’s intimations of a deeper reality in the execution of a perfect athletic maneuver.
The more subjective, more obviously literary writers spend a lot of time on minutiae. They write a lot of words that go over and over the same ground, again and again. They write descriptions that take up entire long paragraphs that don’t advance the plot in any way at all. Yet with all those words, they rarely include any that stand above the events as they’re viewed by the character who experiences them; he doesn’t judge them, evaluate them, or set them in any kind of generalized context.
In The Cookbook Collector, on the contrary, there is lots of commentary. What The Cookbook Collector has, instead of subjective dwelling or brooding on minute observations and the emotions they give rise to, is plot; and its plot is advanced by straight narration and dialogue in alternation. All the available space is taken up with dialogue, with scenes, and with a large number of characters who need to be characterized, followed for some period of time, and then caught up with after some time has passed. Given the choice (which I’m assuming here) to make this novel plot-driven and objectively narrated, the only way in which ideas or differences in characterization could find their way into the text is by the author’s stating them outright. Some people find getting through a novel like Goodman’s (or Goldstein’s) to be quite difficult, I’m sure, and for exactly this reason: they find large passages of straightforward commentary to be boring. Yet difficulty, in itself, doesn’t push these two novels towards being literary in the same way it does Franzen’s.
In part this is because—beyond their having different aims than his novels do—they really don’t succeed, I think, even on their own terms. In The Cookbook Collector, already by the 150-page mark, a large number of strands have been introduced and developed. True, each of these strands makes its own independent contribution: either developing plot points that either are essential to the main storyline, or illustrating secondary characters in ways that enrich the depiction of the main characters and of the theme. And the scenes do move the main narrative forward, and each one that is chosen for inclusion is developed fully. (Incidentally, perhaps, they also distinguish the central “people-centric” narrative from the more peripheral and less fully narrated business and technical stories, indicating what the reader should understand as most important.) But the full development of so many narrative points, with dialogue included in full and nothing summarized, takes more time than is strictly needed to move the story forward, and isn’t always interesting in its own right. And this is, in part, because the emotional and psychological depth that might engross the reader, make the text interesting, isn’t there. Each of the characters is fascinating—I want to see so much of these people—but for each of them we don’t get a whole lot more than a four-page character sketch and the sense that the author believes people like them are important.`
In The Marriage Plot and The Magician King, alike, the reader gets the sense that people are different: that they believe different things, have different goals, and are at times incomprehensible to one another and to themselves. In The Cookbook Collector, the plot implies this multifariousness of humanity, but the language and the form suggest the opposite: that if we don’t all think the same way now, not at the level of the everyday but at some deeper level of our souls, we should, and someday will.
I’m not sure that, all told, this makes The Cookbook Collector a less worthy novel than those other books (which I admit can be boring themselves in places). In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino does praise “velocity” as a desirable characteristic for literature, and in refusing to brood or to dwell on events longer than they deserve, Goodman’s novel does achieve this kind of carrying speed. Yet I think it could have been a 600-page novel that delved more into the subjective and paid more attention to language than this one does; and the longer novel would have been a better one. I don’t think it needs to have most of its character and plot stripped away to make it “difficult” (that is, unlike the kinds of novels people read for fun), or to have its dialogue replaced or interspersed with authorial commentary on the economy and the state of the world. I wonder whether a “subjective” novel about the same topics could treat its characters, who are far from typical for a literary novel, with the sensitivity and charity that Goodman allows to them. On the other hand, while I was reading The Cookbook Collector, I did wish that it could have been more thoughtful, more often.