It’s not the only thing it should do, but it’s an important part. That’s why I loved this essay:
I guess M.’s novel is trying to be that last kind of book. But the problem is, the language isn’t beautiful. Reading it is an experience that does not change the reader; it’s like being forced to eat a million meals of bland, laxative-laced food cooked in an institutional kitchen (like those in schools, hospitals, prisons, etc.): you can just barely choke it down and then it all goes right out the other end; it doesn’t taste good; you don’t get much nourishment from it; it doesn’t even make you feel full. It is a pleasureless experience. It doesn’t really matter where you start reading; pick any page at random, it’s all the same. It’s like a faucet that’s been left running all day. I think Nabokov described Finnegans Wake as “a persistent snore in the next room.” Well, that is how I feel about this book.
If reading something “dumb”—like, say, the Clive Cussler thriller the woman sitting behind me on this train is reading—is the literary equivalent of watching TV, then reading this book reminds me of being a kid watching TV with my grandmother, who lived in the middle of nowhere in the Ozarks and got very bad reception: squinting, paying very close attention, trying to watch a show we could just barely see through the static.
I’ve lately been feeling especially wary of this kind of writing since I’ve been teaching undergraduate writing workshops. My attitudes about literature have a way of evolving along with my teaching. As I said, all those postmodern dudes—Pynchon, Gaddis, etc.—were writers I read in college, when I was young, under-read, and hungrily, impatiently trying to improve myself. For me back then, the harder and weirder the book, the better. These are the “smart” books that “smart” guys (especially guys) in college have been forcing themselves to love since the 1970s, and I’m a little amazed (I shouldn’t be) to find that the students in my fiction classes (again, especially the guys) still read and enjoy these books. The same books, for at least the last thirty, nearly forty years. And undergrads in liberal arts schools are still trying to imitate them. I guess maybe it’s a phase one needs to go through or something.
M. has the obfuscatory impulses of Pynchon, the snideness of Gaddis, the meanness of Gass, and the hipster cred of Barthelme, but unlike those writers, he is not funny, beautiful, brilliant, or interesting.
But the fiction students in whom I see the most potential are the ones I admire, even envy a little, for reading without vanity and anxiety: those who genuinely read for pleasure. They don’t read to impress anyone (including themselves). They read for pleasure. This is not to say that they shy away from the difficult, “smart” books—it’s just that their reading is omnivorous, exploratory, widely varying. They don’t just zero in on the books everyone knows are “smart.” They derive pleasure from language and narrative, and want to learn to perform the magic tricks themselves. They don’t care about being the smartest, best-read person in the room.
Go read it all, it’s glorious.