Saturday, September 17, 2005

Benjamin Kunkel et al

The Tines on Sunday lay a giant wet kiss on the lips of Benjamin Kunkel and his fellow intelligistes (my coinage) at the literary journal n + 1. Kunkel was given the front page of the book section to write a not particularly illuminating essay on the American novelist and terrorism while n + 1, a magazine he co-edits, was featured in a glowing profile by A.O. Scott in the magazine. That's a lot of real estate to give over to first-time novelist and a newborn literary magazine that maybe a few thousand people have ever heard of, much less read.

I have read n + 1, both issues, and they are excellent. The quality of the writing, the commitment to books -- and not just any books, but books of substance and importance -- is impressive. Elif Batuman has an exquisite piece on a Babel conference in California she attended that I am sure will lead to some kind of assignment at the New Yorker -- it is full of sharp, funny, and insightful observations of academics gone just a little overboard in their devotion to the Russian author. There are also some impressive intellectual takedowns. It;s about time that that lightweight intellectual turned celebrity worshipper turned celebrity Christopher Hitchens got his comeuppance, and n + 1 gives it to him in droves.

If n + 1 is garnering so much attention, it is likely because it is so strident in announcing its break with the ironic, smug, meta approach to writing that has prevailed in American letters for so long now. The writers in the journal all seem to be in search of something substantive, a transition that I suspect has mostly to do with the Iraq war. There is nothing like death to sober you up. But I also think the Bush administration has so skillfully spun this country that it should now be clear that all those post-modern hijinks and stylistic games everyone thought were so revolutionary in the nineties can, in the wrong hands, be easily employed for evil ends.

What n + 1 is not is a intellectual movement, or, at least I would say, the magazine does not actually stand for anything. It is more a tirade against than a proclamation for. This may just be because it's so new -- it is still groping its way toward a vision -- or it may actually be the Kunkel style. Certainly, his hit sensation novel seeks to characterize the current moment as one of ambivalence and paralysis or why else would he have called it Indecision?

But you can also see also see Kunkel's world view on display in the review he contributes to the Spring issue of his journal. In it, he reviews Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee. The format of the review is ingenious -- Costello is about a novel about a novelist reflecting on the novel; Kunkel's piece is a review about a reviewer reflecting on reviewing. I actually think it's the perfect way to examine Elizabeth Costello since it addition to being a a consideration of certain literary issues, it is a consideration of how to best express a consideration of literary issues. Why shouldn't Kunkel dive right in there with his own meta-take on meta-dom?

But don't be fooled by all these literary hijinks -- Coetzee is a highly moral writer concerned about the weightiest kind of ethical issues. All his works are full of characters whose irresolute moral stances takes them to the periphery of acceptable societal norms. There's no dilly-dallying, and no muddle-headedness or ambivalence permitted. Tragically, we have no choice but to take a moral stand even if that stand pushes us to the fringes of society, and even if we can't or don't know how to justify that stand. Morality is an instinct. It's unavoidable.

Kunkel's piece, in which his protagonist is highly critical of Coetzee, is all about the necessity of murkiness and inaction. The character in the review, Diana, is best by ennui and confusion. Mostly, she just comes across as in need of a low dose of anti-depressants. She has nothing close to the vision or forthrightness of the protagonist in Elizabeth Costello. Kunkel takes one of the great moral avatars of our age, Coetzee, and reduces his work to insouciance.

I think we can ask if Kunkel represents a new direction for the American novel or just more David Eggers.

P.S. In his essay on terrorism and the novel, Kunkel references the Japanese author Yukio Mishima and says he, unlike many American novelists, gets the mindset of the terrorist. This strikes me as preposterous. Mishima viewed violence through an aesthetic lens. He thought it was beautiful, especially when it lead to death. I have yet to read anything that says the terrorists in 9/11 or London thought the act of violence they were committing was a work of art. Rather they saw it as a political and religious act. For my money, it's only V.S. Naipaul who gets the mindset of these young Muslim terrorists. I don't agree with Naipual's politics, but if you want to understand why suicide terrorists what they do, there's no one more insightful.

P.S.P.S. The answer is Stanley Cavell. Why is no one talking about Stanley Cavell.


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