Doxology

By Nell Zink

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Can a pointless book be good?

Anyone who has read this blog with any regularity knows I’m obsessed with this question. To declare that, in order to be considered a work of value, a book must have some larger metaphysical or moral point is, essentially, to disqualify almost every work of horror, or fantasy, or romance from being ‘good’ (of course, most of them aren’t good, but very few books are good in any genre). Just as literary genres have their own conventions and codes, might they not also have their own standards, their own definitions, of success and failure? And mightn’t one of those standards be, simply, that they entertain?

I don’t think that many people would argue with me that, for example, ‘Jaws’ (a favorite test case of mine) is a great story. But it’s a great story because it is original and compelling, not because it makes any grand arguments – the shark doesn’t stand for anything, it’s not a comment on capitalism, or the patriarchy, or climate change. Its goals are to be fun and scary, and because sharks are intrinsically fun and scary, it succeeds in its goals. Therefore, it is a good book, in my opinion.

Applying that standard (“Does it entertain?”) to genre novels is pretty uncontroversial; however, when it is applied to realist literature, things become a little more complicated. We tend to have higher epistemological standards for realist literature; we expect those stories to do more than entertain. We expect them to instruct.

But I would like to advocate for the good literary novel which merely entertains, a la ‘Jaws’. It doesn’t make sense to me that we have simpler standards for books with wizards than we do for books about ordinary people. Perhaps the more we, the readers, resemble the protagonists, the more we require instruction: no point about reading about ourselves if we aren’t going to be bettered by it.

But ordinary people can be just as strange and compelling as elves, and not every story needs a moral. I’m advocating for this category, The Good, Pointless Book, and I’m submitting ‘Doxology‘ as an example.

Doxology‘ is about three friends who become a family. Pam and Joe meet in New York City in the nineties. Joe has William’s Syndrome; Pam is a punkish runaway. When they meet Daniel, a transplant from a religious Mid-Western family, the three decide to form a band. Joe is the singer song-writer, Pam the guitarist, Daniel the manager.

However, Daniel and Pam start sleeping together, and Pam is soon pregnant with a little girl she will name Flora. She and Daniel marry, while Joe unexpectedly becomes famous. On 9/11, as Pam and Daniel take their young daughter and flee the city, Joe overdoses on heroin. The family is traumatized, but their lives roll forward: Flora grows up, Pam and Daniel creep into middle-age.

Doxology‘ is really the story of Flora’s young life. She’s totally normal for an unusual kid: she’s smart, stupid, needy, independent. Her parents are cooler and stranger than normal parents, but her life isn’t therefore any more exotic. Aside from being babysat by a rockstar, she lives the life of a Gen-Z: raised by millennials, growing up under the cloud of climate change, idealism deeply challenged by the election of Donald Trump when she is barely out of a college, post-AIDS, post-Great Recession, lost.

And ‘Doxology‘ isn’t going to add anything to your understanding of Gen-Z, especially if you’ve ever seen a TikTok. If there is a greater meaning, I missed it. It’s merely, I think, a quick jaunt with a member of the latest adult generation.

Nell Zink

But it was a fun read, more of a zany ride than High Art. The action is fast-paced. Serious emotional developments are announced only in oblique comments, coded asides. Entire conversations are conducted with a sort of skipping meta-wittiness that makes ‘The West Wing’ look like ‘See Spot Run’:

“So, if I’m not the father, who is?”

“Aaron’s ready to accept responsibility,” she said.

“He’s a fucking socialist who wants to take responsibility for the whole planet. Can he tie his own shoes? Did you check?…It’s my baby,” Bull went on. “Or at least I’m adopting him. If biological-father-boy wants to make it an open adoption, let him try.”

“You don’t need me, if it’s a baby you want,” she said. “Have your own baby. You can afford a surrogate.”

“I guess for you Millenials that’s just one kind of sex work, but FYI, I’d rather be raped by an animal than exploit a woman of color like she’s a piece of meat. I love you, Flora, you fecund slut. I’ve got stuff to finish up here, but I’ll be home in an hour.” (p.366)

I am a millennial, and I have lived in New York City, and I have never, ever, heard a human talk like this. It’s completely unconvincing, but, again, I think that’s beside the point. It’s kind of fun (in an irritating way) to read an entire book about people who talk like this. It’s fun to read a pseudo-absurd thought experiment about millennial parenting. It’s fun to read about events of my own lifetime happening to fictional avatars. I didn’t learn anything, but I enjoyed it, and I guess I just fundamentally believe that that’s a good enough reason to recommend a book.

The Nix

By Nathan Hill

All Posts Contain Spoilers

“So banks and governments are cleaning up their ledgers after years of abuse. Everyone owes too much, is the consensus, and we’re in for a few years of pain. But Faye thinks: Okay. That’s probably the way it ought to be. That’s the natural way of things. That’s how we find our way back. This is what she’ll tell her son, if he asks. Eventually, all debts must be repaid.” (p. 732)

As you may have noticed by now, I don’t love contemporary fiction.  I read a fair amount of it, and I even like some of it, but I rarely love it.

I’m not sure exactly why this is.  The answer that I tell myself is that I rarely shine to contemporary novels because most of them, to put it plainly, are bad.

Now, of course, most novels of any time period are bad: most books are bad.  But if we are still reading and recommending a book that was written two hundred years ago, then we are reading it because generations of readers before us have identified it as good, vouched for it and passed it forward.  Each generation that a book survives is a finer and finer filter of taste through which it must pass, making it more and more likely that the book is good*.  Previous generations have done much of the work of selecting out the bad books of their own time for us.  And we will do the same for the books of our own generation.

*There is a wrinkle here, though, and don’t think I don’t know it: once books achieve the status of “great”, once they become venerated, people becomes less likely to notice that they are, in fact, bad, and less willing to say so if they do notice, and so some bad books get kind of grandfathered past the normal critical filters.  It’s a real problem (ahem, I’m looking at you, Edgar Allan Poe, looking right at you).

But, since we are the first filter through which contemporary novels will pass, contemporary novels are, therefore, the novels most likely to be bad.  They are unfiltered.  And I, personally, think it shows.

So I have developed a mild aversion to them, a slight generalized contempt for books which are overly demotic, or casual.  Which are grounded too much in my own time.  Maybe I am less compelled by problems of modernity, by plot lines which heavily involve the internet, or television, or video games.  They might be fun (they usually are), but they never seem to have any artistic weight.  Somehow, if a writer mentions tweeting, I automatically assume that his book is Beach Reading, that it cannot be Great Art.

All of which is, I understand, a prejudice.  I am prejudiced.  Which is why I hope that you will believe me in particular when I say that, despite the fact that it is ultra-modern, that it involves the internet AND television AND video games, ‘The Nix‘ is a really great book.

I’m obviously not the first person to notice this (it was a bestseller) but I may be the most reluctant.  I had ‘The Nix‘ slated as Beach Reading for sure, and was irritated when it showed up on all those curated tables in all my favorite bookstores, and was absolutely not going to read it.  However, one day my best friend and I were wandering through one of those bookstores and he pointed to it and said, ‘That’s a great book.  You would love that book’.  And because he is my top-ranked #1 Book Recommender, I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to have to read ‘The Nix’.

(By the way, to offer some measure of how much I didn’t want to read ‘The Nix‘, how much I would rather have been reading ‘Ivanhoe’ and Graham Greene and other snobby shit, I will also mention that that was two years ago.  ‘The Nix’ has been sitting on my To Read Shelf, complete with a recommendation from the person whose opinion on books I trust above literally anyone else’s, for two years.)

Which, shame on me, because I adored it.  My best friend was right (he always is): it is a phenomenal book, and I crashed through it in about two days, loving every minute of it.

The Nix‘ is the story of Samuel Andreson-Anderson.  Samuel is failed writer who makes his living as a mediocre professor of Literature at a mediocre liberal arts college, but who spends most of his time online playing World of Elfscape.  Samuel’s sadness, his essential passive loserdom, his failure as a writer and as a romantic figure, were all locked in place on the day when he was eleven and his mother Faye abandoned him, utterly and without warning.  Samuel has had no news of his mother for twenty years when, one day, she resurfaces. She resurfaces when she is arrested for throwing rocks at a conservative Presidential candidate.

The Nix‘ manages to do the thing which so few contemporary novels actually do: to use the trappings of modernity to explore the genuine existential crises of modernity.  Most contemporary novels wear their modernity on the surface, referencing the cultural soup we’re all bathing in without really utilizing it.  They seem so desperate to prove that they are culturally fluent that they spend all their time showing off all the culture that they know, making jokes and allusions that won’t last five years, without exploring what any of those cultural artifacts really mean for the people who use them.

Nathan Hill

The Nix‘ doesn’t make that mistake.  Nathan Hill uses his character’s context – it is a tool with which he interrogates the peculiar human problems which modern humans have.  He isn’t just being funny about video games – he’s trying to figure out why people get lost in them.  He’s trying to figure out why people get lost at all.

“And since beginning with an Elf warrior named Pwnage he had advanced to play a whole stable of alternate characters with names like Pwnopoly and Pwnalicious and Pwner and EdgarAllanPwn, and he made a name for himself as a fearsome gladiatorial opponent and a very strong and capable raid leader, directing a large group of players in a fight against a computer-controlled enemy in what he came to regard as a being a conductor in a battle-symphony-ballet type of thing, and he rather quickly got extraordinarily good at this…because he believed that if he was going to do something he was going to do it right, he would give one hundred and ten percent, a work ethic he liked to think would soon help him with his kitchen renovation and novel-writing and new-diet plans, but which so far seemed to apply only in the area of video games.” (p. 411)

Hill also avoids another easy pitfall of the contemporary novel: depiction of the dreariness of life as the point of the art. There is a school of art which eschews grand events, seeks instead to act like a mirror to everyday life, to explore the depth and nuance of a totally ordinary life in all its putative depth, all its normal beauty and sadness (the seminal, original novel of this kind is ‘Mrs Dalloway’. I hate novels like this – I find them boring, and drab, and I understand that that is sort of the point of them, but knowing that I was meant to be bored does not actually alleviate my boredom.

The Nix‘ isn’t drab, or dreary, or ordinary at all. It is colorful, and plotty, and exciting. Things happen which would never happen to you, or to me, which would never happen to anyone, really, but because they are well-drawn and funny, the novel works tremendously well as a whole.

I loved this book.  I thought it was funny, and moving, and clever, and wise.  It contained the right mix of correct, quotidian details and outlandish, unlikely plot elements so that I was able both to relate to it and stay hooked into the story.  This wasn’t a novel about my modern life – it’s a novel about a crazy, sad, unlikely modern life, a much more entertaining modern life than mine will ever be.

I thought that I didn’t like reading novels about my own cultural moment – as it turns out, I only like reading them when they are written by a master, and then I love reading them. This book was so good, I ordered it for about three different people right away, and called my best friend for more recommendations. I have no pithy ending line, no great lesson here. ‘The Nix‘ was a joyful, funny read. I think it is a great book. I’m so glad I read it. I wish I could read it again, for the first time, all over again.